Covid-19: China took the lead; no one followed

A man wears a mask while walking in the street in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Picture: Supplied/Getty Images
A man wears a mask while walking in the street in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Picture: Supplied/Getty Images

On January 23, China put 50 million of its citizens in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province under a mandatory quarantine.

By then, China had learnt a few things about the new Covid-19 coronavirus and how it was being transmitted.

The biggest fear was the spread of the virus into mainland China, where it would be almost impossible to contain and manage.

China immediately instituted aggressive measures to contain the virus – it shut cities down and instructed people to stay at home; it also tracked infected people’s movements through their cellphones to keep an eye on their whereabouts, and punished those who did not follow instructions.

In the middle of February, 13 foreign and 12 Chinese scientists, led by Canadian World Health Organisation (WHO) epidemiologist Bruce Aylward, arrived in Hubei province to understand this pandemic and how the country was handling it.

Read:‘China can take better care of us’ – South Africans in that country

On the day Aylward and his team arrived, China reported 2 478 new cases.

By the time they left a few days later, new cases had dropped to 409.

It was a phenomenon that had to be seen to be believed.

In such a short space of time, China had bent the curve of the virus, hospital beds were opening up and the infection rate was dropping quickly.

On February 25, the scientists produced their report under the auspices of the WHO.

The report was categorical and succinct in its findings about China’s efforts to combat the spread of the virus: “China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic.”

Then China pulled off a godly feat and traced those who had been in contact with infected people.

It closed schools, cancelled all outdoor activities and shut shops, and no one was to go outside without a mask.

The rest of the world, still nonchalant due to the low number of infections outside China, saw these measures – which included forced social distancing – as extremely aggressive.

A month later, on March 24, China reported only one new case of infection in Wuhan.

This followed a week of no new reported cases.

The most important question was whether these bold actions would work in the other parts of the world that were only just beginning to experience this virus.

Aylward and his fellow scientists were hoping to identify scientific and medical methods in China to curb the spread of the virus, but he had not expected that an authoritarian lockdown and crackdown of dissent would help unburden hospitals and actually flatten the curve.

Western experts reacted to the scientists’ WHO report with incredulity and a sense of disdain that an authoritarian state had something to teach the rest of the democratic world, much less how to fight a virus.

It was clear to Aylward that China had focused on the behaviour of its citizens even as it was creating scores of temporary hospitals and repurposing other infrastructure to deal with Covid-19.

After visiting five cities, including Wuhan, the group said: “Everywhere you went, anyone you spoke to, there was a sense of responsibility and collective action, and there’s war footing to get things done.”

China’s methods, however, were controversial, especially when the country tapped into people’s phones to track their movements.

The app was able to track those with infections, and they were closely monitored so that they didn’t go anywhere.

In effect, these measures kept the virus inside people’s homes, where the worst that could happen was that the family would be infected, but the spread would be contained.

At the time of the scientists’ visit to China, only 29 countries were affected.

Today, 199 countries and territories are affected.

The reason for this is that, instead of experts advising their governments to follow China’s lead to ring-fence and lock down their infected territories, they got stuck on debating China’s authoritarian government and its perceived aggressive and intrusive approach, which offended Western sensibilities.

The result of this endless chatter and lack of quick and aggressive action to combat the spread of the virus is that the new epicentre of the virus is now Italy, where some experts have said the country’s response was “a little too moderate, a little too restrained and a little too slow”.

Italy reported 5 560 new cases on March 22, an unthinkable infection rate from only a few days earlier.

Italy’s infections stand at more than 105 500 and more than 12400 people have died.

The country had only 155 cases on February 23, exactly a month after China imposed a lockdown on January 23.

Then China pulled off a godly feat and traced those who had been in contact with infected people. It closed schools, cancelled all outdoor activities and shut shops, and no one was to go outside without a mask.

Italy only imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 9, when its number of infections was at 10 000.

Still, it was lax about its restrictions.

Even though Italy has finally locked down, its numbers kept rising. The advice from China has been simple – your lockdown rules need to be stricter.

South Korea, which also turned the tide quickly in what was threatening to be a catastrophe in the small country, took the strict measures one step further.

Korea developed a government-mandated GPS tracking app that tracks all infected people and tells everyone where they are, which shops they visited and even where they sat in restaurants.

Even the Korean example left Western experts paralysed as they again debated authoritarianism versus democracy, and not life versus death.

What ended up happening was that people were led to believe that they should fear Chinese authoritarianism more than the virus.

Those were the good old days, when the US could afford to fiddle and play ideological games.

Then the unthinkable happened. China arrested the spread of the virus and the US exposed itself by showing that it lacked both the legal and logistical means to fight the virus (a situation that was not aided by the country’s worst president in recent memory).

The US now has more than 176 000 cases and more than 3 400 deaths due to the virus. It’s getting worse by the day.

The message has been clear. China has succeeded, but the US has failed – and is continuing to fail – to arrest the spread of the virus.

The primary role of any government is to protect its citizens.

China seems to understand this, and it did everything it thought was necessary to save its people.

Now everyone gets it.

  • Diko is a social commentator

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