Once in the hospital system, the top end was highly sophisticated in treating those who had contracted the virus. However, the initial spread of the virus in Wuhan overwhelmed the hospitals, which were overrun with infected patients. This led to the piling up of dead bodies in hospital corridors, and, with exhausted doctors lacking adequate protection, many staff died. In response, the State mobilised medical professionals from across China to assist in Wuhan, and galvanised the production and sourcing of protective clothing and equipment for frontline medical staff.
In short, China’s response to COVID-19 took some critical time to emerge, and due to this the nation is suffering internal and global opprobrium. The causes of that delay were both medical and political. Once mobilised, however, China went in hard in the Wuhan epicentre, with comprehensive social isolation, infection tracking and case management. Then, when the virus spread from Hubei, China expanded the social isolation and social management to the rest of the country.
At its peak in February, Hubei recorded 14,840 new infections within one day. When the WHO mission arrived on 20 February, there were 2,114 deaths of the 55,924 laboratory confirmed cases. By 5 April, China's total number of confirmed coronavirus cases ‘officially’ stood at 81,669 (a figure since revised upward), with the death toll at 3,329, and some 76,964 people having recovered. By 8 April, the virus curve had flattened, and Wuhan was officially opened and joined other cities, where those with green QR colour codes were permitted to travel under strict containment guidelines.
Reading China’s response
To understand China’s response to the pandemic you need to read China within its context. Historically, post-1989, there has been a form of social contract between the Communist Party of China (CCP) and the people. Through this, the State focuses on economic prosperity and social issues while the people concentrate on creating a good life (xiaokang or ‘small prosperity’).
Given that this social contract is dependent on economic prosperity, it is no wonder Hubei officials were reluctant to inform Beijing of a pandemic, or that Beijing was so slow to act. However, once the CCP leaders did act they did so in a (Maoist) military manner, isolating Wuhan and Hubei, building a hospital and marshalling 40,000 medical care workers from across the country.
The rhetoric of a nation at war resonated with the (Maoist) past, and citizens in their gated compounds felt secure while the State dealt with the infected patients and overall containment. Additionally, Chinese people have a sense of civic mindedness and are ready to accept the directions of the state, including restricted movements and personal monitoring by such means as a phone app. Notwithstanding this conformity, it can be imagined that when the medical crisis eases and the government restores economic normality, Chinese people will return to participating in social conflicts to protect their interests and their visions of China.
Relations with China, and what we can learn from China’s experience
China’s response to the pandemic raises three considerations that should be taken into account by policy-makers:
- China matters. As a fully globalised nation, what happens in China has global consequences.
- What happened in China during the first two months of the pandemic – notably the cover-up, lack of transparency and political procrastination – is an example of what not to do. On the other hand, China’s containment strategy offers the rest of the world a blueprint for the development of policies to cope with the pandemic, centering on lockdowns.
- The pursuit of globalisation for financial gains over the past two decades has come to a sudden halt, and future directions must be built on the welfare of global humanity in addition to economics. As Australia is so economically integrated with China, the policy choice of decoupling, notably in higher education, will be a vexed economic and political question, with international students as pawns in this game.
Professor Greg McCarthy is professor of Political Science and International Relations and Senior Honorary Research Fellow at UWA.