At the time of writing, the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 surpassed 180,000 worldwide, with over 7,000 deaths. Governments around the world are struggling to contain the pandemic, with measures ranging from total lockdown to travel bans, as well as financial injections to their respective economies. As public anxiety and paranoia continue to soar across the globe, experts predict a global recession in the near future.
While panic spreads across 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 Province, 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 go back to work. About three-quarters of the 80,000 Chinese people affected by COVID-19 are said to have recovered from the virus.
Workers step up production of protective clothing at the workshop of Xinle Huabao Medical Products Co., Ltd. in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province on February 19.
The Chinese character for “crisis” also carries the meaning of opportunity. Instead of taking draconian measures under the cloud of fear and uncertainty, we can learn five lessons from China's handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak and adopt similar measures to save lives.
First, proactive and close cooperation with international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) 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 airports, infection prevention 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 its severity. In addition, Chinese experts 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 the 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 virus spread 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 flights and trains leaving the city and suspending public transport. The Chinese Ministry of Education announced postponement of the spring semester of schools, colleges, universities as of late January. Chinese residents in Hubei were also advised to limit all non-essential social gatherings. Many of them relied on delivery service for their daily supply. China’s early lockdown decision stands in sharp contrast to Italy, where a nation-wide lockdown was only imposed in early March. Moreover, China built two new 1,000-1,300-bed hospitals to fight the coronavirus, both completed in around 10 days, with the help of thousands of laborers working around the clock. Such investment made a big difference in providing relief to the overburdened healthcare system and providing additional hospital beds for treatment of patients in isolation.
Fourth, providing easy access to testing centers and medical facilities for treatment is absolutely critical for containing COVID-19. This is largely thanks to the Chinese Government’s allocation of RMB 110.48 billion for patient treatment, diagnosis, subsidies for medical staff, and medical equipment. Those who exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus were immediately sent to a special fever clinic, and diagnostic tests, as well as treatments were provided free of charge. Other provinces and regions sent more than 40,000 medical workers to the center of the outbreak. When it came to the non-medical response, there was a nationwide sense of solidarity with Hubei. 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 adopted facial-recognition systems with thermal-imaging capabilities to identify and track people with fevers which is particularly effective in the transport system. Passengers’ movement can be easily traced with their ID information and facial recognition facilitated by big data. 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 lockdown implemented in early March. China sent a team of medical experts to help Italy fight the coronavirus, and essential medical supplies and equipment arrived in that country 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 aging population. The Italian economy at large, which relies heavily on tourism, is suffering greatly from the lockdown 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 panelist at the InterAction Council’s Annual Plenary Meeting in Beijing in 2018.