Covid-19 is currently raging in Iran, Italy, and South Korea. The United States, facing a severe shortage of test kits, faces the possibility of a nation-wide outbreak. France, Germany, and Spain are reporting hundreds of new cases daily. In this torrent of awful news is an immense ray of hope – China, who has severely limited the spread of Covid-19. After reporting up to several thousand new cases in a day, including thousands outside of Hubei province, Beijing now says that it can fully contain the outbreak by mid-March. Despite the epidemic occurring during the largest annual human migration and China’s largest holiday, and despite initial doubts of Chinese transparency, China can now breathe a sigh of relief. Factories are re-opening, and the Chinese are now donating medical supplies to Japan and South Korea. While the full story on Covid-19 is unknown and will require dozens of books to fully capture, much can be learned from China’s success in tackling an immense threat to the human race.
The speed of China’s response is likely the biggest factor in China’s containment of the disease. On January 24th, China had roughly 1300 cases of Covid-19. At this point, China decided to place 36 million people in Hubei province under lockdown – a swift, unprecedented, but necessary step to slow the spread of disease across the mainland. In contrast, a lockdown occurred in Italy’s Lombardy region only after over 5,000 cases were reported in Italy. There is little doubt that these lockdowns are absolute hell for all residents. This being said, China ended up placing 57 million people under lockdown – which could have ended up saving a population of 1.3 billion people. During epidemics, difficult decisions must be made, and these decisions must be made with a utilitarian perspective in mind. The Chinese government sought to maximize the health of the majority of its population – in short, China sacrificed a province to save itself.
China’s command of resources also played an immense role in the coronavirus fight. With all epidemics, there is a strain placed on the healthcare system. Typically, hospitals do not have many excess beds – but during epidemics, demand for hospital beds surges. This results in problems – not only will potential Covid-19 cases not be treated, but other patients who do not have Covid-19, but still need a hospital bed for another medical problem, may be harmed. To counter this problem, China embarked on a hospital-building spree. They built a 1,000-bed hospital in 10 days, using techniques such as modular construction to expedite the work. A second hospital, with 1600 beds, was constructed in under two weeks. While these hospitals were by no means cutting edge, they did their job of containing patients and alleviating the burden on the healthcare system. China even converted sports stadiums and convention centers into makeshift hospitals, providing an additional 10,000 beds of capacity. These converted hospitals were largely used for the mild cases of Covid-19, while newly constructed hospitals were used for more severe cases. In any case, the Chinese government leveraged its immense power to benefit its people. China rapidly acquired land, moved in construction materials and workers, and began construction – something unthinkable in the west.
Lastly, in fighting an epidemic, one of the most important aspects is “contact tracing”. Viruses spread through contact, and contact tracing allows for public health officials to track people who may have been infected due to close contact with a confirmed case. Contact tracing is very difficult – and the difficulty grows exponentially as more cases are confirmed. Additionally, minimizing the time between when the virus enters a person, and when the person is quarantined or hospitalized, is critical. In a hypothetical scenario where people are quarantined instantly upon infection, the virus would be halted – it couldn’t spread. In contrast, infected people who remain in society pose an active risk to others. To help with contract tracing, China developed a “close contact” app, which allowed people to check if they had been within close proximity of a confirmed case of Covid-19. China’s mass surveillance techniques likely aided in contact tracing – to the West, this represents a breach in civil liberties, but to China, it represents a collective sacrifice to help the broader community. To identify potential cases of Covid-19, China put thousands of people with infrared thermometers in major cities and public places. AI-based screening systems also aided in identifying those who were potentially infected, and this mass surveillance helped the Chinese government to cut off chains of transmission. Wuhan, at the epicenter of the outbreak, utilized its surveillance technology to determine whether or not people were wearing masks in public, a mandated health measure. China even implemented a mobile phone-based “traffic light system”, which allowed guards to identify potentially infected individuals.
Covid-19 has not been defeated in China, but it has been suppressed. China must remain vigilant to prevent a re-emergence of the disease it fought so hard against. Meanwhile, the rest of the world must follow China’s lead. While no other country can replicate what China did, China’s speed and collective effort provide an example for the rest of the world to follow. And, when Covid-19 is defeated, China’s model may provide a future blueprint on how to build an epidemic-ready state.