While Covid-19 cases continue to rise in Europe and elsewhere, normal routine life has resumed in China.
Every few days, a video emerges from the United States in which someone is being dragged out of a shopping mall or escorted off a plane for refusing to wear a mask.
Just this week in London, police clashed with protestors who were violating new lockdown measures put in place to contain another wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Spain, too, faces blame for the rise in hospitalisations in Europe after it prematurely decided to open up its borders for tourism.
On the other hand, China, where the first novel coronavirus case was reported late last year, has fallen out of the coronavirus news cycle.
Beijing has used a remarkable strategy to control the pandemic. China is no longer among the top 50 countries when it comes to the total number of reported Covid-19 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University’s tracking website.
A country of 1.4 billion people has fewer cases than much smaller nations such as Oman and Panama.
Similarly, it has brought down fatalities: more people have died in Canada and the Netherlands than in China, which has recorded 4,741 deaths so far. The new coronavirus has killed more 1.2 million people globally with the US recording the highest number of casualties at 234,937 as of November 6.
How did China stop the spread?
In mid February, a team of World Health Organisation (WHO) scientists arrived in China on a fact-finding mission when the world’s second largest economy still had the highest number of Covid-19 cases.
Chinese officials were facing criticism for allegedly trying to hide information about the initial spread of the deadly pathogen in Wuhan, a city in central Hubei province.
But WHO scientists were shocked to see how quickly China’s emergency response system had sprung into action. The hospitals, which were overflowing just a few weeks ago, were now empty.
The day the team arrived, China reported 2,478 confirmed new cases of Covid-19. On its last day in the country, two weeks later, the number of cases had dropped to 409 a day.
“In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” the team noted in its report.
One reason that’s often cited for Beijing’s early success is the absolute authority of the Chinese Community Party government, which tolerates little dissent. That is true to an extent.
With the contagious virus, which has zoonotic origins, spreading quickly, Chinese authorities introduced a no-nonsense lockdown - often shutting cities of tens of millions at short notice.
Wuhan remained under complete lockdown for more than two months. Other cities used strict curfews such as allowing only one person from a family to go out every 3-4 days to buy groceries. Public transport was suspended and health officials picketed checkpoints along roads to take temperatures.
Thousands of health officials were deployed within weeks to trace people who might have come into contact with a coronavirus patient.
Experts who have studied Beijing’s response can’t help but admit that there’s a greater sense of collective responsibility among Chinese people. That’s one reason why people there follow advice on wearing masks.
Local community leaders associated with the communist party were constantly on the lookout. For instance, even if one family was suspected of having contracted the virus, the whole apartment block or community centre would be sealed off.
European governments have struggled to enforce such measures and there have been a number of instances when people have deliberately violated social distancing protocols in the name of individual freedoms.
The 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which also belongs to the same coronavirus family, also left Chinese health officials relatively prepared to deal with a pandemic. For instance, in 2006, an Emergency Response Law was passed to face a major disease outbreak.
At the start of the Covid-19 spread, China used whatever tools were at its disposal to minimise human contact when infections were on the rise.
As Peter Hessler wrote for the New Yorker in late May, he saw a robot at the Sichuan University, located on the outskirts of Chengdu, making delivery runs for students, reducing human-to-human interaction.
In Asia, Europe and elsewhere, it should have been easy to deal with the second wave since health practitioners are now better equipped with more reliable testing methods and protective gear at their disposal. Yet that hasn’t happened.