A brief account of China’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic

In the few former colonising countries known as the West, a number of irresponsible media outlets wasted time trying to criticise China while the World Health Organisation (WHO) was urging the countries in question to act. So it is worth going over the facts in relation to the epidemic.

I begin with three points consistently made by WHO:

1. China`s complete transparency and assistance of other countries throughout.
2. The achievement of containing and preventing the disease in China, especially when there was a real danger it could get out of control, is unprecedented in human history.
3. Other countries should follow the China Model.

Although these points were hard to believe by the chattering classes in the West, the WHO made these recommendations from the perspective of medical science and not politics.

How did the WHO come to make these points? Let us follow the course of events, which are freely available on Chinese media outlets, which are not afraid at all of the truth.

In late December about 10 doctors reported cases of an unknown or SARS- like virus. These were immediately reported to WHO and thorough investigation was undertaken in China and by WHO. One doctor, Li Wenliang, posted two notices, sent from his colleagues engaged in the investigation, on wechat and weibo, and the local police reprimanded him for inappropriate use of social media. Importantly, he was not silenced or fined but kept working and he was by no means the only one involved in the research. I must admit, I am in two minds about this move. Of course, the Western media made a big brouhaha about a supposed ‘whistleblower’ who was ‘silenced’, but this was a clear distortion of the actual situation. Why am I in two minds? On the one hand, I am all in favour of responsible social media practices, and the need to curtail severely the spreading of rumour and gossip. On the other hand, should a qualified doctor make medical information available during an ongoing investigation of a new disease? There is much debate in China about this question as I write and I do not have a clear answer.

I recommend that you read this report of the 40-day investigation of the matter by the National Supervisory Commission (on China Daily). The report noted that there are very strict laws concerning the verification, release and reporting of epidemic information. Li had not followed those laws and provided some incorrect information at the time. Thus, the actions by the local police at the time had followed the law. At the same, Li – as a member of the CPC – had acted in good faith and for the social good. The report also finds that two of the police officers involved had followed substandard procedures. Thus, a sincere apology was given to Li’s family and the official letter of reprimand rescinded.

No system is entirely perfect: a few other local officials were found not to be up to the task of dealing with an emergency (including the mayor of Wuhan). Widespread criticism was made, very openly. An inspection team was quickly dispatched to Wuhan and the incompetent local officials dismissed and replaced. It would be like a prime minister going to Hawaii during a bush fire emergency (think of Australia). Upon return, he would be out of a job. Clearly, the early mistakes in China were incidental and not systemic.

Meanwhile, WHO sent a team to China, the sequence of the unknown virus was identified in a record 7 days by a Chinese laboratory, a diagnostic kit was developed by a German lab, and a full diagnosis was possible by 20 January. The WHO notes that this was the fastest identification made in the case of a new disease. The plan developed was a WHO-China joint plan, and the WHO urged the rest of the world to act immediately since China had given the world an opportunity to change the course of the disease. Unfortunately, too many countries did not listen and we find ourselves in the current situation.

In China, the ability of its socialist system to control and manage a new edpidemic is now history. Through widepsread testing (1.6 million a day), integration of AI, 5G and big data, it was able to keep the epidemic to a miniscule fraction of one percent of the whole population. As for the population itself, the old Chinese cultural – and socialist – reality of the greater social good kicked in and almost everyone cooperated (those who did not soon did so). Notably, public health was paramount, and not the economy. Of course, the economy too would benefit from a focus on public health, as China’s staged resumption – as I write – of production indicates. By contrast, the totally inept response in a place like Australia seeks to prioritise the economy and make public health a secondary issue. This will have greater economic repercussions, as more get infected.

As for the China Model, we can also note that those countries that followed it to some degree (Singapore and South Korea come to mind, but also – to its credit – Denmark, which still has a strong and able public sector, despite efforts to erode it over the last few years) have been able to control the epidemic.

A brief account, I must admit, but it explains why the WHO has made its three points consistently throughout: complete transparency; unparallelled containment of an epidemic, and the China Model for dealing with such an outbreak.

4 thoughts on “A brief account of China’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic

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