China - the nation came together to successfully fight COVID-19
Walking around Beijing today, so many people are out shopping, going to restaurants, the mood feeling positive, seemingly relaxed. It could almost be a ‘normal’ Beijing day. Go back only two months, the scenario then very different. I was in Tianjin during the height of recent COVID-19 crisis. Confirmed case numbers were rising across China, although patterns were uneven. Tianjin’s tall buildings, in scenes replicated nationwide, were illuminated in messages of support, particularly for Wuhan. That city at the virus epicenter, its future then looking bleak. Television, newspapers, social media all encompassed this emotive feeling. Individuals were universally uploading images incorporating the characters for ‘Jiayou’ or ‘Be Strong!’ Normally associated with sporting events, it was aimed at sending encouragement to Wuhan, indeed also to everywhere that COVID-19 had a grip.
“Come together, we are with you!” The idea was of a nation working as one, to defeat the virus or at very least, contain it. The outlook however felt uncertain, could the situation really be brought under control, would ‘normality’ return? There was so much unknown, particularly as this was a seemingly new contagion. Of course it was natural that people were worried. They were certainly cautious but not panicking. Now, May 2020, wearing masks remains widespread, temperature checks still in place. The reality however is of a ‘new normal’ spreading across China’s cities. Scenes of everyday life, long associated with the likes of Beijing, have returned.
During my stay in Tianjin, I would walk down to the then ice-covered Haihe River. There was an unusual silence for very few vehicles were on nearby roads. However, flocks of migratory Siberian seagulls were circling overhead. The birds felt almost like an omen, of seasonal life returning. There, by the river, I would think over what were the possible scenarios for the coming months. I had lived though SARS in 2003. Would COVID-19 repeat the same trajectory of reaching a plateau to be followed by a steady decline towards zero? That indeed happened and like SARS there have been a combination of intertwining factors.
I was however not alone by the river. Local people were there, showing, what I felt was a certain resilience. Often in silence, they continued with daily norms. Some fished through holes in the ice, others exercised, practiced tai chi or quietly walked. However all were wearing masks. Again no sense of panic, or paranoia, more an acceptance of the situation. They were symbols that if everyone followed the guidelines and rules, then after a period of ‘being strong together’, it would all come out fine. That is what I reckoned and today the facts speak for themselves. Tianjin with a population of almost 15 million people recorded only 144 cases and a mere 3 fatalities. Outside of the Wuhan/Hubei epicenter, similar outcomes were repeated nationwide. Indeed, by the beginning of May, China had reported a total of 4,633 fatalities. This represented a mere fraction of what many countries, with much smaller populations, presently have tragically lost.
By mid-January, when COVID-19 had become a national issue, strong action was deemed necessary. This included the seemingly drastic lockdown of Wuhan. Elsewhere, cities such as Tianjin saw various levels of shutdown, not lockdown. Looking back, it was clear the country’s priority was saving lives despite actions likely to result in a period of short-term economic pain. The alternative does not bear thinking about! If the virus had spread nationwide, with a mortality rate, say around 1%, then many, many millions of people could potentially have lost their lives.
As I looked at the people there by the Haihe River, I realised that success would come not just through resilience but a willingness to go along with what was being asked of them. Staying at home for long periods could be difficult, particularly when there are children involved. However, social distancing was vital in controlling the spread of COVID-19. Measures such as closing schools would, it was hoped, likely delay the epidemic’s growth. It is reckoned that the Wuhan lockdown measures, so restricting interaction with people staying home, could reduce daily contact by 7 or 8 times. Such actions would drastically slow virus transmission, bringing down the potential peak incidence possibly by between 40 to 60 per cent. While lockdown was happening across Wuhan and parts of Hubei, it was obvious that in Tianjin most people were staying at home, avoiding unnecessary social interaction.
Returning to Beijing in early March I would observe how the ordinary citizens were playing their part. Actions came right down to street level. Local people, neighbourhood committees, residential compound management teams were all emerging as key workers. Stopping contact transmission was a priority. Meticulously checking of temperatures; ensuring quarantine restrictions were enforced, only allowing actual residents in or out of their compounds. Living in gated communities is the norm for most urban residents.
I was faced with 14 days quarantine. It was not as bad as it may sound. It proved an opportunity to watch how my immediate neighbourhood was responding, seeing how everyone came together. There was a general feeling of calm. I accepted I must stay within the gates but anyone going outside would wear a mask while also going through temperature checks by the security guard. They became key workers as did the many delivery men who brought food and household utilities to be collected at the gate. Everything ordered and paid for on-line. Although there were no shortages of food or commodities, without those deliveries potentially there could have been real problems for ordinary people. Items a household required from fresh meat, to vegetables, personal hygiene equipment, face masks and more were all delivered. With little need for people to venture outside, a very effective means of reducing transmissions was thus established. It was amazing how some popular Beijing restaurants were able to deliver their speciality cuisines around 30 minutes after ordering. The chefs, yes, they were key workers and I certainly appreciated their creativity!
Today I have continued working at home. However, when heading outside I continue to see the role of community involvement as a ‘first line’ in defence. At every residential compound or building, neighbourhood teams were monitoring people coming and going. Outside shopping areas such as Beijing’s popular Taikooli, near where I live, security personnel were checking everyone entering. At a cafe I often go to, the staff were checking and recording each diner’s details. They again were vital players working as part of overall community action.
Increasingly I was aware of the role high-tech combined with Big Data analysis. This was something not available during SARS. Today people carry their smartphones indicating their health status. Entering a restaurant or using a train, they are scanning QR codes. They can be alerted if they were in the vicinity of a virus carrier. Technology meant rapid tracing of any potential contacts, followed by testing and possible quarantine. In Beijing, there are so many temperature checks that it must be impossible for anyone with an active virus to be out and about in the city!They would quickly be identified. Everyones accepts the necessity and reason for this even although it could be a bit time-consuming in busy places. However such rigorous action has helped contain community spreading.
So many ‘local heroes’ have emerged in China, who came together, contributing in their own ways towards containing a situation that so easily could have got out of control - environmental workers keeping cities clean; public transport staff; shop assistants along with many others. Railway teams, for example, not only kept trains running but also ensured that travel was safe. Airport workers have been essential in preventing imported cases.
Of course, the heroic actions of so many health workers flying into Wuhan from areas where the virus threat was low. All were vital, very vital in saving Wuhan from a scenario that could have been devastating. They returned home to well-deserved welcomes with countless expressions of gratitude.
In Tianjin I greatly respected, indeed admired the staff at my hotel who were constantly disinfecting, sanitizing everywhere, so meticulous with my room cleaning, ensuring elevators were safe. Indeed they worked beyond their normal jobs to protect everyone within the building. This scenario was repeated in the hospitality sector right across China. Media regularly featured staff at Wuhan hotels caring for the nationwide medical teams temporarily accommodated with them.
So many ordinary citizens from different backgrounds united in community effort without which the success seen today would have been hard to achieve. It has been the people, they have helped show the world what China can achieve at times of crisis. This has been a very thoughtful experience for me, watching this vast country come together to help its journey back to a ‘new normality’