It has been reported that Chinese hospitals overflowing with coronavirus patients a few weeks ago are starting to have empty beds. Trials of experimental drugs are having difficulty enrolling enough eligible patients and the number of new cases reported each day has plummeted the past few weeks.
These are some of the startling observations in a report released on the 28th of February from a mission organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Chinese government that allowed 13 foreigners to join 12 Chinese scientists on a tour of five cities in China to study the state of the coronavirus epidemic and the effectiveness of the country’s response. The findings surprised several of the visiting scientists.
The report comes at a critical time in what many epidemiologists now consider a pandemic. In just a week, the number of affected countries shot up from 29 to 61. Several countries have discovered that they already have community spread of the virus—as opposed to cases only in travellers from affected areas or people who were in direct contact with them—and the numbers of reported cases are growing exponentially.
Much of the report focuses on understanding how China achieved what many public health experts thought was impossible: containing the spread of a widely circulating respiratory virus. The most dramatic measure was the lockdown of Wuhan and nearby cities in Hubei province, which has put at least 50 million people under a mandatory quarantine since 23 January. That has “effectively prevented further exportation of infected individuals to the rest of the country”, the report concludes.
In other regions of mainland China, people voluntarily quarantined and were monitored by appointed leaders in neighbourhoods.
Social distancing measures implemented in the entire country included cancelling sporting events and shuttering theatres. Schools extended breaks that began in mid-January for the Lunar New Year. Many businesses closed shop. Anyone who went outdoors had to wear a mask.
The report does mention some areas where China needs to improve, including the need to communicate key data and developments internationally more clearly [idem, p. 21].
It illustrates also the emergency chain of command set up by the CPC. It was decided by the Central Committee and the State Council creating two bodies: Central Leading Group for Epidemic Response (led by Prime Minister Li Keqiang) and the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism (under the personal direction of Secretary General Xi Jinping), while Vice Premier Sun Chunlan was sent directly to Wuhan coordinating all relevant frontline activities.
Sinologist and Chief Analyst on Chinese Affairs at Nato Defense College Foundation. Foreign affairs writer for international magazines and publications.