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On 12 January 2021, the WHO reported a total of 115 new coronavirus cases in China, the country’s highest daily increase in COVID-19 cases since July last year. According to the commission, 107 of the new cases were local infections, with Hebei province accounting for 90 cases, and northeastern Heilongjiang province reporting 16 cases. Chinese health experts have attributed this new cluster of cases to undetected asymptomatic carriers in the community, which led affected cities, including Beijing, to ramp up citywide testing. The resurgence of COVID-19 infections has also led authorities to send three cities — Shijiazhuang, Xingtai and Langfang — into lockdown once again, as part of the efforts to keep the virus from spreading further.
Like many nations, China’s battle with COVID-19 has not been an easy one. While the country’s death toll is relatively low in comparison to some Western counterparts, it has undeniably suffered significant losses during this tumultuous period of time. In this article, we revisit China’s battle with COVID-19 since the virus was first detected in Hebei province back in 2019.
Phase 1: Detection
China, as well as the world’s first COVID-19 case, dates back to mid December 2019, where patients in Wuhan began showing flu-like symptoms including high fever, cough and breathing difficulties. Thought to be pneumonia initially, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its first public statement regarding the Wuhan outbreak on 4 January, 2020. In their tweet, the WHO announced that “China has reported to WHO a cluster of pneumonia cases — with no deaths — in Wuhan, Hubei Province.”
Two weeks later, China officially confirmed person-to-person transmission of the virus, after it had surfaced among healthcare workers and close contacts of infected persons. The virus had also begun spreading throughout the country ahead of the Lunar New Year holidays. Immediately following the declaration of the contagious nature of the virus, massive actions were taken by the Chinese government to curb the epidemic, including the closing of borders and a complete lockdown in Wuhan.
Phase 2: Isolation
Wuhan’s lockdown was announced by city officials on 23 January 2020, prohibiting all transport in and out of the city. For over two months, Wuhan’s 11 million residents were confined to their homes, only going out occasionally to obtain necessities. Streets were deserted apart from ambulances and security personnel patrolling the streets, while shopping malls, restaurants, and other attractions shut their doors.
Within the rest of China, strict measures to curb the spread of the virus were implemented as well. Checkpoints were enacted at road junctions to ensure a reduction in the number of people travelling, and security personnel made sure that people were dutifully abiding by self-isolation measures. A strict mask mandate was also imposed for whenever people had to leave their homes, while mandatory temperature screening was enforced in public areas such as supermarkets.
Finally, after 76 days in isolation, Chinese authorities lifted Wuhan’s lockdown. Residents celebrated their freedom with sound-and-light shows, some even clapping and cheering from their balconies to express their gratitude to first responders who risked their lives during the pandemic. However, the horror and devastating impacts of the virus have since remained in the community, as residents continued to exercise caution out of fear of a second outbreak.
Phase 3: Recuperation
As lockdowns were gradually lifted across the country towards the middle of last year, strict screening and social distancing measures remained in place to keep the number of COVID-19 infections in China low, as the country became one of the first to embark on a post-pandemic economic recovery. While other countries continued to grapple with escalating infection rates, the Chinese government had begun recalibrating its focus towards recovery and growth.
Recognizing that international demand for its manufactured goods has dampened with COVID-19 ravaging across the world, the government emphasized domestic demand to be a key driver of growth going forward. Given the country’s rapidly expanding middle class, an increase in investments and the country’s thriving technology sector, “internal circulation” was set to be a cornerstone in the next stage of China’s economic growth.
As a result, China became the only G20 economy forecasted by the International Monetary Fund to achieve positive growth in 2020. In the third quarter, the country had enjoyed growth at an annual rate of 4.9 percent, following a contraction in the first half of 2020. In the fourth quarter, the Chinese economy continued to pick up pace, with its expansion rate rising to 6.5 percent.
Phase 4: Vaccination
As a part of the country’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, China has ramped up its efforts to develop an effective vaccine against the virus. Since July last year, vaccines developed by Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and state-owned China National Biotec Group Co. have been given emergency-use authorization, and millions of coronavirus vaccines have since been administered to medical personnel, frontline workers and other groups with high-priority.
According to a Straits Times article, Chinese officials have presently administered over 10 million doses of the vaccine nationally, just weeks before the Lunar New Year. With the recent clusters of cases surfacing Hebei province and other parts of Northern China, immense pressure has been exerted on Beijing to inoculate as many people as possible ahead of the festive season, where an increased frequency of interstate travel is usually expected.
This year, however, in a further bid to prevent a resurgence of the virus, the Chinese government has publicly discouraged “non-essential” travel, while state and city governments have imposed a variety of restrictions on interstate travellers. State media has also gone on a promotional blitz to assure the public of the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, even as international media outlets cast doubts over the efficacy of Sinovac’s vaccine, whose clinical trial results revealed that it has only barely met the 50 percent efficacy threshold for regulatory approval, a rate that is only slightly higher than the average efficacy of the flu vaccine, estimated by WebMD to be 40 percent. A 50 percent efficacy would mean that for every 100 people vaccinated, 50 people will not be infected.
In China’s next steps to recovering from the pandemic, we can expect to see an expedited rollout of vaccinations across the country. In Beijing alone, more than 240 centres have been set up, vaccinating a total of between 100,000 and 150,000 residents each day. Chinese officials have also made vaccines accessible to those in rural villages by setting up temporary stations and educating people about the benefits of getting vaccinated.
Experts generally predict that the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations across China will be a success, noting the country’s unique advantage in its ability to mobilize a vast amount of people and resources within a short amount of time. However, at a 50 percent efficacy threshold, China would have to inoculate 80 percent of the population to achieve ‘herd immunity’, a phenomenon described by the WHO to be an indirection protection of at least 60 to 70 percent of the population from an infectious disease, either via vaccination or by developing immunity through previous infection. According to the Director-General of WHO, herd immunity against COVID-19 should be achieved via widespread vaccination, and not by exposing the population to the pathogen causing the disease.
For China’s population of 1.3 billion people, at least 780 million people would have to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity. Given the massive scale required of the vaccination campaign, it is unlikely that China will be able to put this pandemic in its rearview mirror any time in the immediate future.