Photo: Aly Song/Reuters
When China shut down its economy at the end of January to try to control the coronavirus outbreak, it was a bold and terrifying experiment. No one had tried anything similar. It was unclear whether the virus’s spread could be curbed, let alone halted. It was also possible that, as a respiratory virus with highly variable symptoms, coronavirus was simply too transmissible and too difficult to detect for these measures to work. But work they did and now China is the first nation to enter into the next phase of the pandemic – attempting to reinstate everyday life against the backdrop of coronavirus. But how much can economic life and daily freedom be restored without risking a “second wave” of the virus?
Since I returned six weeks ago to my home in Shanghai from a trip to Europe, the city has progressively come back to life. First, the number of people on the streets started to increase. Then restaurants began to reopen and, slowly, filled up. As of this past week, it is no longer compulsory to wear a mask when going shopping or on public transport, and it is no longer compulsory for restaurants and shops to take the temperatures of customers, as they had been doing previously.
Nevertheless, people here are still being careful. The only ones you see on the streets not wearing masks are old men, who never obeyed the rules anyway. Most venues still take temperature readings and do an increasingly good job. All of my recent readings have been between 36C and 37C – rather than the improbable 33C to 35C range I was registering a couple of weeks ago.
For the adventurous, there is even a bit of nightlife. I have gone clubbing twice in last six weeks. Steps in this direction though are slow and cautious. After announcing that cinemas would reopen this weekend, the authorities immediately announced they would close again after an uptick in reported cases. Meanwhile, stringent measures are in place reducing travel from the outside world.
Scepticism exists in the west as to whether China has been as successful in suppressing the virus as it claims. What I can say concretely is this. The chief tools that China has used to control the outbreak are rapid detection and isolation of symptomatic cases, together with 14-day quarantining, normally at home, of everyone who is even remotely likely to have recently come into contact with them. The extensive army of busybodies responsible for detecting and isolating cases remains firmly in place, as do the frequently used apps that chart the positions of every known case, with a color code indicating how long ago that case occurred. Red for less than a week ago, orange for between one and two weeks and yellow for more than two weeks.
I do not believe there has been a cover-up. Covering up cases would render the tools used for controlling the outbreak ineffective. There might be a few local officials who are unwise enough to attempt it, but at the regional or national scale it appears extremely unlikely. As in every other country, there are caveats to interpreting the numbers, especially in badly affected regions, but the overall evidence is unequivocal: suppression has worked.
China has had a few advantages over other countries in dealing with the outbreak, resulting from its social and political system. One is the ability to deliver consistent messaging. When the lock-down took place, the normal television schedule was suspended and replaced with wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage, devoted to the importance of not letting the disease spread. As a result, the people of China are, generally speaking, more afraid of catching the virus than of running out of food or losing their livelihoods.
Whether or not Xi Jinping is personally scared of infection, I do not know, but he has done a disciplined job of behaving so. This falls in stark contrast to Boris Johnson, who caught Covid-19 himself after boasting of attending a hospital treating sufferers and shaking lots of hands. Xi waited until the outbreak was firmly under control before visiting Wuhan. When he spoke with patients and healthcare workers, he did so by video link, even keeping a healthy degree of social distancing from his microphone. Due to the broad adherence to government edict, a blanket lock-down has thankfully never been necessary in Shanghai or most other places in China. I, just like almost everyone else, stayed at home anyway.
Everything now could be, to a degree, harder in the west. It looks very much as if lock-downs will, on average, need to be longer and stricter than in China – with freedoms regained over a longer period. The numbers of cases in the population have been higher on the date at which lock-downs were imposed. Once the numbers of cases in the community are down to manageable levels, technological solutions – such as antibody tests and contact tracing – might do some of the job of the army of busybodies here. But until that point, mass physical distancing will remain necessary.
In my own opinion, the costs of suppressing the outbreak are absolutely worth it. What many people on the right in the west, including Donald Trump, have failed to appreciate is that, in economic terms, harboring coronavirus is unfeasible. Until a country has shown that it has brought transmission under control, normal economic life cannot resume. Tourists will not visit and international travel will not be permissible – meaning that, until they get coronavirus under control within their own borders, countries will not be able to again join the world community of freely trading nations. That community today seems to consist of China alone.
• Daniel Falush is a professor at the Center for Microbes, Development and Health at the Institute Pasteur in Shanghai