China claims it is on track to containing the Covid-19 outbreak. If this is indeed true, it is a turning point on the health front, and would signal the victory of the “Chinese model” over the virus, at a time when the West is overwhelmed by the effects of the crisis.
Update April, 8 2020
Since 19 March, China has officially registered no new cases of local coronavirus contamination. As a result, the total lockdown in place since the end of January in Wuhan, the epicenter city of Covid-19, is about to be lifted. While the rest of the world is going into lockdown to overcome the relentless pandemic, China appears to be the only country capable of dealing with this global health crisis.
A war against Covid-19, communicated in the official media
The situation on the ground remains very fragile and the Chinese authorities are now fearing a massive wave of cases imported from abroad. “Unprecedented measures have been successfully implemented to contain the virus and the health system is much better prepared than it was during SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed nearly 800 people in 2003],” says Karen Eggleston, a research fellow at Stanford University in the United States and a specialist in health systems in Asia.
After largely underestimating the extent of the crisis initially, Beijing has since deployed major resources, mobilizing several thousand military doctors, building several hospitals in record time and performing systematic screening throughout the country. A “war” that is widely praised by State media, which have been ordered by the central authorities to multiply “positive reports”, as French sinologist Jean-Pierre Cabestan recently recalled on iD4D. The very official China Daily has also created an online column for the attention of the “international community” and dedicated to “fighting Covid-19 the Chinese way”.
Containment and mass isolation to fight Covid-19
But what is the real impact of this unprecedented effort in China? Beijing magazine Caixin, renowned for its investigative work, has attempted to measure the effects of these “practices” on the ground in a series of articles. After investigation, the magazine noted: “In retrospect, the regions that took precautions in the early days of the epidemic (Shanghai, Hong Kong and the city of Qianjiang in Hubei province in particular, editor’s note) are those that were able to contain the virus at a much lower cost.”
In Wuhan itself, a widespread lockdown and strict isolation of the sick would have helped to contain the epidemic, which officially claimed 3,274 lives in China (the overwhelming majority in Wuhan). Le Monde reminds us that from 9 February onwards, the local inhabitants were “only allowed to leave their homes once every few days, then no longer at all. The residents’ committees [then organized] food distributions.”
Update : Several Chinese media, however, question the official number of victims. According to the same Caixin magazine, the number of funeral urns given to the families of the deceased in Wuhan is indeed much higher. Information picked up on March 30 by the Hong Kong daily South China Morning Post.
Researchers from Southampton University in the UK confirm this analysis in a study on the preventive actions carried out in China since the beginning of the crisis. The paper, published on Medrxiv and referred to by the Futura Sciences website, shows that “non-pharmaceutical” interventions such as early detection, isolation of contaminated cases, travel restrictions and the cordon sanitaire imposed around each apartment building reduced infections in the country by 66%. However, Jean-Pierre Cabestan, interviewed by iD4D, insists “the central government should have taken its responsibilities earlier and put these measures in place in December. This would likely have contained the epidemic.”
A “costly delay” for global health
This point was also highlighted by Lawrence O. Gostin, Professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington. “China waited weeks before declaring a new coronavirus to the World Health Organization,” he says, criticizing the “costly delay”. In an article published in the specialist journal Health Affairs, the American researcher describes mass quarantine as a “draconian” and “medieval” measure. “The joint WHO-China mission did not present clear evidence of the effectiveness of this measure,” he said.
Not surprisingly, in Beijing, economist Ding Yifan, Deputy Director of the Institute of World Development, instead praised “a courageous decision that has brought the epidemic under control. The government and local authorities have demonstrated their ability to respond to a major crisis.” For this economist, who is close to the regime, “China has become a model” in the fight against Covid-19. As a demonstration of this, Beijing is now coming to the rescue of severely affected countries, including Italy, where Chinese experts have been sent to advise local health authorities. “This aid is a stark contrast to Europe’s inability to help Italy,” journalist Pierre Haski told France Inter on 23 March. France, meanwhile, has received more than a million masks from Beijing.
This health crisis is causing a reshuffle. “This is a global test”, says Karen Eggleston, who campaigns for greater transparency and political anticipation at the international level during health crises of this kind. Seen from China, this test is also beginning to look like an ideological war between Beijing and Washington. A spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently suggested that Covid-19 is in fact of American origin.
In an attempt to substantiate this accusation, China suggests that deaths attributed to a flu outbreak last fall in the United States may have been caused by Covid-19. “A crude exercise in propaganda,” says Jean-Pierre Cabestan. But one which illustrates, according to him, the “cold war climate” that is taking hold between the two leading economic powers of the world. The post-Covid-19 era has already begun.