Chinese response to Covid-19: Turning Crisis into an Opportunity

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By Tina J. Park

China Today

May 2020

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“China’s approach reflects openness, transparency, and international cooperation. Chinese government is doing its best every day to protect the Chinese people not only for its own sake but also for the world’s. China deserves the international community’s gratitude and respect...WHO is working closely with the Chinese government on measures to understand the virus and limit transmission. In our fractured and divided world, health was one of the few areas in which international cooperation offered the opportunity for countries to work together for a common cause. This is a time for facts, not fear. This is a time for rationality, not rumours. 

This is a time for solidarity, not stigma.” 

- Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of World Health Organization

At the time of writing, the number of people diagnosed with the novel coronavirus (SARS-COV-2) has surpassed 180,000, with over 7,000 deaths. Governments around the world are struggling to contain the pandemic, with measures ranging from lockdown to travel bans, as well as financial injection to their respective economies. The public anxiety and paranoia continue to soar across the globe, with experts predicting a global recession in the near future.  

While panic is setting in Europe and North America, China has not only emerged as a leader in containing the virus but also took the opportunity to forge stronger ties with its allies like Italy. On March 10, Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, paid a visit to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, where the coronavirus outbreak began. On the day of his visit, there were only 19 confirmed new infections in China, a noticeable shift from thousands at the peak of the outbreak in February. Contrary to the trends in the European Union and North America, Chinese factories and restaurants are re-opening their doors again. Local governments in less-affected areas of China are relaxing travel bans and encouraging people to get back to work. About three-quarters of the 80,000 Chinese people affected by Covid-19 are said to have recovered from the virus. 

The Chinese word “crisis” has two strokes -- one brush stroke stands for danger, the other for opportunity.  Instead of taking draconian measures under the cloud of fear and uncertainties, there are five lessons we can learn from the Chinese handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak and adopt appropriate measures to save lives. 

First, proactive and close cooperation with international organizations such as the World Health Organization is essential. From the very onset of the crisis in late January, the WHO delegation conducted a field visit to Wuhan to investigate the novel coronavirus and to discuss necessary containment measures for the outbreak. A few notable developments took place during this visit. Most notably, the delegation monitored and discussed surveillance processes such as temperature screening at the airport, infection preventions and control measures at health care facilities, as well as deployment of the rRT-PCR test kit to detect the coronavirus. The WHO delegation also discussed expanding the definition of the coronavirus, which in turn, enabled China and the international community to build a clearer picture of the spectrum of severity of the novel coronavirus.  Chinese experts also shared with the delegation a range of protocols to be used for developing international guidelines, including case definitions, clinical management protocols, and infection control among others. This WHO mission ensured that there was a coherent policy between the Chinese national, provincial and Wuhan health authorities, as well as sharing protocols, epistemology of virus and increasing transparency. 

Second, clear and coherent communication from the government is absolutely critical in times of crisis. Following the WHO delegation visit, the Chinese government released the primers and probes used in the rRT-PCR test kit, which followed China’s rapid identification of the virus and sharing of the genetic sequence. According to the WHO’s director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the uncontrolled spread of virus is “not a one-way street...This epidemic can be pushed back...but only with a collective, coordinated and comprehensive approach that engages the entire machinery of government.” As early as January, the Chinese authorities at all levels ensured that the latest information about the outbreak was shared with the public, including detailed guidance on hand and respiratory hygiene, food safety and avoiding mass gatherings. 

Third, a concrete and coordinated action plan from the government can help flatten the coronavirus curve at an early stage. Chinese authorities locked down Wuhan, epicenter of outbreak, on January 23, cancelling planes and trains leaving the city, suspending public transportation within. Chinese Ministry of Education announced postponement of the spring semester of schools, colleges, universities as of late January. Chinese residents in Hubei were advised to limit all non-essential social gatherings, with strict curfew imposed in the evenings. Many of them relied on food delivery instead of going out for meals. China’s early decision for lock down stands in sharp contrast to Italy, where a nation-wide lock down was only imposed in early March. Moreover, China built two new 1,000-1,300-bed hospitals to fight the coronavirus, one created in six days, and the second in 15 days, with the help of thousands of labourers working around the clock. Such investment made a big difference in providing relief to the overburdened healthcare system, providing additional hospital beds for treatment of patients in isolation. 

Fourth, providing easy access to testing centres and medical facilities for treatment is absolutely critical for containing Covid-19. This is largely thanks to the Chinese government’s allocation of some 110.48 billion Chinese Yuan for patient treatment, diagnosis, subsidies for medical staff, and medical equipment. Those who exhibited symptoms of coronavirus were immediately sent to a special fever clinic, and diagnostic tests, as well as treatments were provided for free of charge.  Thousands of medical staff from different municipalities relocated to Hubei province. When it came to the non-medical response, there was a nationwide sense of solidarity with Hubei. Other provinces sent 40,000 non-medical workers to the center of the outbreak, many of whom were volunteers. These nation-wide investments and collective efforts from the general Chinese public had synergistic effects in curbing the mortality rate. 

Fifth, using high-tech systems to track the transmission of the virus is essential in the battle against coronavirus. China has developed and implemented one of the world’s most sophisticated systems to monitor and control its population.  For instance, facial-recognition systems with thermal-imaging capabilities have been adopted in China to identify and track people with fevers. There are also cameras and microphones outside the homes of people in quarantine if there are any unusual movements. Apps collect personal information to monitor passengers in public transportation, as well as banking history. All of these electronic surveillance and monitoring systems may be seen as an invasion of privacy. But in the face of the Covid-19 crisis, these tools have been tested and proven to be effective in saving lives. 

Many of these lessons from the Chinese handling of coronavirus can be implemented elsewhere. The Chinese government has been proactively engaging with other countries affected by the crisis, most notably Italy, which shares a long history of friendship and alliance with China. The mortality rate from Covid-19 is the highest in Italy at the moment, despite the total lock down implemented in early March. China sent a team of medical experts to help Italy fight coronavirus, and essential medical supplies and equipment arrived in Italy on March 13.  Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, that Italy was “paying close attention to and learning from” China’s experience in tackling the coronavirus. Rather unfortunately, the Italian government has not been successful in providing clear communication to its public about its response to the Covid-19 outbreak, which has contributed to a greater degree of panic and anxiety among the public. In Italy, there is a general lack of infrastructure when it comes to testing facilities and intensive care facilities, in addition to having a very large segment of an ageing population. The Italian economy at large, which relies heavily on tourism, is suffering greatly from the lock down situation, and the government has been unable to finance additional costs needed for the Covid-19 testing and treatment.  All of that points to a greater need for external support and an opportunity to strengthen Sino-Italian bilateral relations in times of crisis. Millions of Italians who are confined to their homes have been chanting “Andrà tutto bene,” which translates to “everything will be fine.” Saving lives is a top priority for humanity, beyond all borders. It is time for Italy and other European countries to take lessons from the Chinese example and step up their efforts to protect their citizens. 

Dr. Tina Park is a Vice-President of the NATO Association of Canada. She was formerly a fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome (2019) and a panellist at the InterAction Council’s Annual Plenary Meeting in Beijing in 2018.