Preparing for the worst
January 24, the last day before the Chinese New Year, is the day when my family and myself are first confronted with the corona virus. Traditionally, the family is currently in Tai’an, 600 kilometers south of Beijing and my husband’s birthplace, to celebrate the Chinese New Year. For a few days now, the Chinese media has been talking about a new virus that is apparently spreading rapidly in Wuhan, Hubei province, and seems to infect people at an unprecedented rate.
There is no panic yet, but the streets are noticeably less crowded than usual and people seem to avoid more and more public places. Most remember the SARS virus that killed a total of 774 people and infected 8,098 others between November 2002 and July 2003. Then the virus caused a shock wave across the country and many cities went into lockdown.
Since we want to avoid this scenario, we decide to return to our Shanghai home as soon as possible. There are already reports of the discontinuation of certain train and bus services. If Shanghai, as an international hub, were to be shut off from the outside world, we would probably be stuck in Tai’an for months. That is why we return home in an almost empty high-speed train the next day. However, the few passengers all already wear face masks. It was clear that everyone is starting to prepare for the worst.
Once we arrive in Shanghai, we barely get out the next two months. And we are clearly not alone. Due to the widespread use of the internet and the fact that updates about the new situation followed every hour, the Chinese reacted very quickly to the crisis. Outside the Wuhan region and fifteen other cities in Hubei Province, where more than 60 million people live and who were required to lockdown, most Chinese simply decided to stay at home. So the entire population went into self-imposed quarantine. And those who still went outside consistently wore a mouth mask.
It was truly phenomenal to see how an entire country completely shut down all activities within a few days and focused on one thing: staying at home for everyone’s safety and fighting the spread of the virus. In addition, schools, cinemas, restaurants, shopping centers, … were almost immediately closed, and a general ban on all kinds of mass gatherings was introduced.
Within days, about 760 million people were somehow affected by these drastic measures. Everyone in China fully understood what had to be done to face this unseen crisis. Social distancing and quarantine became the norm. The Chinese government was willing to sacrifice its economy in the short term for something far more important, in this case the health and well-being of the general population.
Arsenal high-tech tools
In addition to this often self-imposed quarantine, tracking, tracing, testing and checking on a large scale became the key to success. China deployed hundreds of thousands of neighborhood watchmen, workers and volunteers to fight the virus. As a result, checking body temperature became, for example, a standard procedure when entering supermarkets, office buildings or residential complexes.
China’s advanced and comprehensive surveillance network of over 300 million security cameras became an ally in the fight against the virus
In addition, the country made smart use of its arsenal of high-tech tools. China’s advanced and comprehensive surveillance network of over 300 million security cameras has become an ally in the fight against the virus. Infrared temperature detection systems and thermal cameras were installed in all cities. Big Government and Big tech also came together in other areas. Using the widespread use of smartphones among its citizens, the Chinese government teamed up with tech giants Alibaba and Tencent to develop a system within a few weeks to track the health conditions of millions of people every day.
QR color code
Almost everyone with a smartphone, myself included, was assigned three colors (green, yellow and red), based on their movements and who they came in contact with. Only people with a green color code were allowed in public areas. This meant that I had to show my QR color code in almost every office building, hotel, metro or train station I wanted to enter. In total, more than 200 Chinese cities have used this system.
And with the help of a centralized database, big data and machine learning were used to process all this data. On the basis of all this, the government was able to intervene immediately in the event of an infection, trace who had contacted the person in question and then isolate precisely all potential other infected persons in time.
Nowhere safer than in China
In general, most Chinese supported these strict measures and drastic government intervention. Unlike the Western world, where individual rights and freedom are much more prominent, Chinese citizens are much more likely to give up a number of personal rights for the benefit of the common good. Staying in self-imposed quarantine for weeks was never a problem in China. And with results. Apart from a flare-up in Beijing a few weeks ago, there are now hardly any new infections in China.
The Chinese, for their part, also cannot understand why the Western world, and especially the United States in particular, cannot control the corona crisis. It is totally incomprehensible to them that Western governments no longer intervene and that many citizens do not have enough self-discipline to deal with the virus. Therefore, most Westerners living and working in China – including myself – agree that China is now one of the safest places on Earth.