How has China avoided a coronavirus second wave?

Security guards patrol on a street outside of a shopping mall complex in Beijing  - NICOLAS ASFOURI , AFP
Security guards patrol on a street outside of a shopping mall complex in Beijing - NICOLAS ASFOURI , AFP

Europe is the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic once again, with the number of daily infections doubling in the past 10 days as a second wave hits. But China has avoided a second wave.

The question is why? The answer is that its authorities, after being overwhelmed in Wuhan, have fine-tuned an emergency response for surprise cluster outbreaks.

Many subsequent waves of infection have emerged in China, a country of 1.4 billion people and nearly 40 times the size of the UK. Cases have cropped up across the country, as far apart as in the south along the border to Vietnam, and in the north near Russia.

Even in Beijing, the capital – where social distancing and quarantine requirements have been the most stringent in order to protect the ruling Communist Party elite – the coronavirus managed to spread rapidly and infect hundreds in June.

Each time, the Chinese state has rolled out the same programme. Health officials have rushed to test millions of people within days – asking the public to visit large outdoors spaces, such as repurposed stadiums, or by sending workers door-to-door to swab residents.

In some instances, officials have tested a handful of samples together to save time, going back to test individually if necessary to pinpoint infections.

Those testing positive have been isolated and treated, with their close contacts quarantined at home or in government facilities. Again, shops, restaurants and other public facilities have been shut down, including the source of the outbreak.

The entire province of Xinjiang – itself seven times the size of the UK – locked down even though infections were largely clustered in the local capital of Urumqi. Residents complained of draconian restrictions, such as heavy iron bars across their doors, locking them at home.

More recently, a university in Beijing wouldn’t allow people to enter and exit when cases were discovered in Qingdao, more than 400 miles away.

A mass testing programme was quickly rolled out following an outbreak in Qingdao - Reuters 
A mass testing programme was quickly rolled out following an outbreak in Qingdao - Reuters

Social distancing requirements on lifts are still in place, though not enforced as much as earlier in the year. People are still wearing face masks in public places.

China’s borders have been closed much of this year, with only Chinese citizens allowed to touch down in the country.

Only in recent weeks has the government begun relaxing re-entry restrictions for some foreigners that live and work in China.

But to be allowed on a flight bound for China requires test results valid from within 72 hours of take-off and notarised by the Chinese embassy, a test on arrival, and also a two-week quarantine in a government facility.

From the start of the pandemic, many people followed without question the government’s appeal to quarantine at home, even for those living far from the epicentre in Wuhan.

Part of that was because many living in China have experienced deadly infectious disease outbreaks before, such as Sars. People here are also, in a way, used to doing what they are told, having been incubated in an authoritarian state.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t private grumbling about invasive, detailed contact tracing.

Mobile apps that show your health contagion risk profile are mandatory to gain entry to public places. In many instances, visitors also have to scan a QR code to register their presence, in case an outbreak flares up later on. Temperature checks are coupled with facial recognition.

Privacy concerns have risen further under the increased surveillance coronavirus has brought  - AFP
Privacy concerns have risen further under the increased surveillance coronavirus has brought - AFP

Privacy was already shrinking in pre-Covid China, with surveillance cameras going up everywhere and plenty of monitoring via people’s mobile phones. The little bit that remained is getting snuffed out, with coronavirus containment success giving the Chinese state further reason to argue for even more surveillance.

The curbs are even impacting diplomats whose rights ought to be protected by the Vienna Convention – yet another international accord Beijing is disregarding.

In China, it hasn’t helped that local officials in charge of places experiencing subsequent waves have gotten sacked. While in the West, such action means a move toward greater government accountability, in China, what that tells lower-level Party cadres is that making a mistake means losing your job.

That, in itself, disincentivises transparency and reporting up the chain when trouble hits – a particular quirk of how China is governed under the Communist Party and one that meant suppressed information to the public at the start of the pandemic.

So while China’s model has worked in many instances, it’s not quite one size fits all.