Before anyone commonly used the word “coronavirus” in their vocabulary, before Latin closed down, before sporting events at all levels were canceled, and before life in the United States of America as we know it was completely flipped on its head, I received a news notification on my phone about a new SARS-like virus that had been discovered amidst a pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei Province while I was on vacation with my family in Shanghai. I didn’t know it then, but this virus would be known as SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it caused would be called COVID-19, and it was going to change the course of history within a matter of weeks.
In the months since these initial cases were reported in Wuhan, the world has had time to reflect on what could have – or should have – been done differently, with a particular focus on one country: China. While there is still a lot we don’t know about both the virus and the response in China, there are lessons to be learned from what we do know, both good and bad.
Before we look at some of the positives of China’s coronavirus response, we have to address the elephant in the room: China deliberately covered up the fact that the disease existed, and has fed false information to both its own people and the world for months. Perhaps the most notable example of this blatant lying is when China, after enormous pressure from other countries, revised its death totals in Wuhan city by upwards of fifty percent. This has led many people, including President Donald Trump, to assume that there is a lot that the Chinese Government still isn’t telling us regarding the true death toll and number of cases in China.
These lies from the Chinese Government have been used as ammunition for people who want to punish China for the disease, as they believe that if China had been honest with their numbers, other governments would have taken the disease a lot more seriously. Another aspect of China’s coronavirus response that has been widely criticized, both in China and abroad, is the attempted coverup of the coronavirus by Wuhan police. During the early stages of the outbreak in China, a lot of outrage was centered around the police’s arrest and interrogation of Dr. Li Wenliang, the now famous COVID-19 whistleblower who later succumbed to the virus himself. In the interrogation, the police forced him to admit to “making false comments on the internet” after screenshots of his message in a WeChat group chat went viral. After his arrest, people all over China (including one of my Chinese teachers) began changing their profile pictures on WeChat to themselves wearing a mask in support of Dr. Li. Even the Politburo Standing Committee, a committee that includes Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, admitted there were “shortcomings and deficiencies” in China’s coronavirus response, as officials in Wuhan downplayed the severity of the virus in the crucial early days. In the same statement, they also banned the illegal wildlife markets and the trade of wild animals.
Despite this, China’s response to this virus hasn’t just been bad. In fact, China’s response has given us a lot of ideas and strategies regarding how we can handle the virus, with the first being lockdowns. The government first locked down Wuhan, a city roughly the size of New York, and then Hubei Province, which has roughly the population of South Korea, in order to reduce the spread of the virus. While some people (including members of my family who asked me about the situation) were skeptical of how necessary the lockdowns were, similar lockdowns are now in place in the United States and almost every nation in Europe (the main exception being Sweden).
What was more surprising, however, was the way the Chinese people responded to the virus outbreak. Mere days after the virus became national news in China, state run media such as Chinese Central Television (CCTV) put out statements of encouragement for the doctors fighting the disease in Wuhan, and rallied the country around Wuhan and Hubei Province during their Spring Festival Special, an event that is only comparable to the Super Bowl in terms of viewership. After the Spring Festival, my host family and I hardly left the house, except for a few excursions to places where there weren’t many people. Most people in Beijing stayed inside almost immediately after finding out about the virus, even though there were just 114 cases in the city when I left China, as they saw it as their “patriotic duty” to help reduce the spread of the virus. As a matter of fact, there were so few people outside that when I was finally told I had to go back to America, it took just thirty minutes to get from my home in northwest Beijing to Beijing Capital Airport on the city’s far northeast side. For context, when my family came to visit me in December, it took them an hour and forty minutes to get from the same airport to our hotel on the east side of Tiananmen.While China’s response to the virus definitely had shortcomings, and there are still cases being reported today, they have managed to more or less stop the spread of the virus. However, life hasn’t totally gone back to normal. In a few cities in China (namely Beijing, Harbin, Benxi, Dalian, Qingdao, Shanghai, Jieyang, Heyuan, Foshan, Jiangmen, and Shenzhen), the virus is still spreading in communities, and a few other cities have reported “imported cases” from people returning to China from abroad. In response, China has banned all foreign nationals (including those with residency permits, such as myself) from entering the country temporarily. In addition, despite the reopening of some schools around the country, my host brother is still taking online classes. He also informed me that although some schools have opened, almost all of them are checking students’ temperatures every morning as they walk through the gates and enforcing social distancing. China, like every other country on the planet right now, has not been perfect in their response to this pandemic. However, they have given us an example to follow, and with it, perhaps some hope that there will be light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.