How China moved to contain COVID-19: lessons and reflections
China is now on its way to recovering from the COVID-19 crisis and is ready to share its experience with the rest of the world. A white paper "Fighting COVID-19: China in Action" was published on Sunday detailing the country's efforts in containing the infectious disease, while keeping society functional during the months of disruptions.
As the first country to be severely affected by the novel coronavirus outbreak as the first known cases were reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan last December, it has managed to mitigate the epidemic with daily new infections dwindling to single digits from thousands in fewer than three months.
A whole of society effort
With the country's top leadership at the helm of the emergency response, governments at all levels coordinated closely to carry out unprecedented large-scale epidemic prevention and control measures.
Effective classification and isolation of coronavirus patients is what helped turn the tide in the early days of the epidemic. During the 76-day lockdown of Wuhan, local authorities completed two rounds of vetting for 4.21 million households.
On February 2, Wuhan health authorities started dividing cases into different categories amid a citywide health screening campaign.
To meet the surging demand for medical supplies and hospital beds, two new emergency hospitals – Huoshenshan Hospital and Leishenshan Hospital – each with at least 1,000 beds, were built within two weeks.
All COVID-19 patients who exhibited mild symptoms were admitted to temporary hospitals converted from gymnasiums and exhibition centers. Suspected patients were sent to quarantine facilities away from residential communities, and anyone in close contact with confirmed patients were screened.
As medical resources came under strain, health professionals from across the country were deployed to Wuhan. Various industries also pooled resources and manpower into the production of vital medical equipment, including masks, goggles, protective suits, disinfectant, and ECMO machines, to address the shortage of supplies for frontline healthcare workers.
"Over 42,000 medical professionals, including 19,000 respiratory and ICU doctors, from across the country, arrived in Wuhan to fight on the frontline," Ma Xiaowei, director of China's National Health Commission, said at the press conference on the white paper. What's impressive was that none of these doctors and nurses who risked their lives on the frontline were infected.
Restructuring the healthcare system
The sudden onslaught of the coronavirus outbreak caught all countries off guard, including China. The fast spread of the epidemic overwhelmed China's healthcare system at the initial stage of the outbreak.
Major hospitals in Wuhan were forced to radically restructure how they deliver care. Batches of hospitals were designated as special facilities to treat COVID-19 patients. The restructuring of hospital wards was completed in a matter of days to keep up with the rise in the number of coronavirus patients.
To ensure all patients could receive standardized treatment, health authorities regularly updated the coronavirus diagnosis and treatment plan.
According to a report of the World Health Organization (WHO), 80 percent of the people infected had only mild symptoms, and those patients, who received personalized treatment at temporary hospitals, tried a combination of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Western medicine in treating the mild symptoms of COVID-19.
Three formulas and three herbal medicines have been selected to treat mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 cases, and more than 90 percent of confirmed cases in Hubei Province had treatments involving the use of TCM.
Chinese tech firms also came up with artificial intelligence solutions that helped frontline healthcare workers detect and monitor the virus. Telemedicine, which connects patients with doctors on video platforms, was used by hospitals and healthcare providers to help alleviate the burden on the overwhelmed public health system.
Putting lives ahead of the economy
Between economic interests and saving lives, China decidedly chose the latter. Regardless of age, everyone was given equal attention and resources.
In Wuhan, more than 3,600 patients over the age of 80 recovered from COVID-19. To make sure the most vulnerable populations were not denied access to medical care, local governments reserved 149.9 billion yuan (21.2 billion U.S. dollars) for coronavirus treatment fund. Patients who were contracted or suspected of having contracted the virus could seek medical care without worrying about bills.
Meanwhile, China's diplomatic missions around the world dispatched more than one million "health packs" containing essential medical supplies and COVID-19 prevention information to overseas Chinese students, and facilitated safe repatriation of Chinese citizens who were unable to return home due to travel restrictions.
The number of confirmed cases and the death toll in Wuhan were revised in April, to take into account fatalities that were ignored at the initial stage of the outbreak, when the country's medics focused on treating patients. The WHO called the act an attempt "to leave no case undocumented."
Reopening the country with tech and fiscal policies
The slow reopening of the Chinese economy has been enabled by a series of innovative solutions. A system called Health Code, which assigns individuals one of four color codes based on their travel history, time spent on coronavirus hotspots and exposure to potential carriers of the virus, was launched by local governments.
The health code system that relies on big data is key to effective contact tracing and ensuring Chinese peoples' safe return to normal life, as the country emerges out of the pandemic.
The central government has rolled out a series of pro-business policies, including tax cuts, subsidies and financial support to ease the burden of companies, particularly small businesses, which have borne the brunt of the economic shutdown. Many local governments have distributed coupons to people so that they can start spending again to stimulate the economy.
As China tamed the spread of the novel coronavirus, it started channeling aid to countries where the epicenter of the crisis has shifted to – from hosting video conferences to sharing lessons learnt, to sending experienced medical staff to affected countries.
The COVID-19 global pandemic, the most extensive to afflict humanity in a century, is a war that humanity has to fight and win, the white paper states.
"China firmly believes that as long as countries unite and cooperate to mount a collective response," the white paper continues. "The international community will succeed in overcoming the pandemic, and will emerge from this dark moment in human history into a brighter future."