For hundreds of millions of Chinese hitting the road during this year’s week long National Day holiday, Coronavirus feels like a distant bad dream.
As usual, everyone scrambled to show off their best holiday shoots on WeChat (微信). There were familiar scenes of jammed highways, overcrowded tourist attractions and insanely long queue outside restaurants. Gaode Maps (高德地图), the default navigation apps for many Chinese, had to apologise in public after its wrong directions turned a scenic mountain area into a horrendous traffic standstill.
It looked just like any other Golden Weeks in China.
All the while, in London, I was heading into my eighth month of working from home. The novelty of virtual working has long worn off. Days were blending together and I was desperately craving for my usual work lunch varieties at the Spitalfields market. Chilly and dark days forebode the start of the dreadful winter but the list of the countries I can escape to has gotten ever shorter.
Everyone talks about the de-coupling between China and West. Well, sure, I thought to myself. My life in London, reduced to a bare survival mode by the never ending threat of the pandemic, certainly could not have been more de-coupled from that of my family and friends back in China.
And how quickly things have changed.
At the beginning of this year, my husband lamented about me glued to my phone every night. The events unfolded in Wuhan (武汉) and the surrounding Hubei Province (湖北省) were heart-wrenching to say the least. Every single day I felt like going through an emotional rollercoaster as I followed the news. There was shock, confusion mixed with anger and fear. I was deeply worried about my parents, who are in their 60s and have barricaded themselves inside their retirement apartment out of the town since the Chinese New Year.
And then the tables were turned merely two months later. In March, I was the one who went into a national lockdown, when my parents travelled back to our family home in the city and finally got to enjoy some good food and fresh air. Since then, the story has basically been going in one direction, with my parents living their lives in China while I am languishing day by day in my home prison.
While I reflected on this dramatic turn of event, I could not help but wondering what has led to this stark divergence of outcome between China and the West. There has been an inundation of news and commentaries on the Coronavirus, but very rarely have I seen people confronting the elephant in the room: we saw the havoc caused by the virus in China for months before it hit home in Europe, but why has China managed to get it under control while we are taking the brunt of a second wave nine months later with no end in insight?
It is an uncomfortable question to ask, especially given China bashing has become the new political correctness (just count the number of times the word “China” was uttered in the US presidential debates). But thinking through it revealed a pretty stunning thing. That is, these days, the West are so blindsided by complacency and a sense of moral superiority that they are simply unable to keep an open mind and peek over to the other side. Let alone seeing the cracks and deficiencies in their own societies.
To me, burying one’s head in the sand is a real tragedy, especially in the face of such obvious facts – this virus is not invincible and other countries have done it. Not only China, but also countries such as Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand. Regardless of their ideologies and political structures, the simple truth is that the majority of people in these countries are happy about their governments’ responses to the pandemic while people here are not.
Setting aside the nuances of these countries’ approaches, there is a clear commonality in their actions. First and foremost, drastic measures such as lockdown were taken quickly before things getting out of control. The result is that the infection level was suppressed to a near zero level within a relatively short period of time. Afterwards, they continued to maintain a tight border control and tackled any sporadic outbreak aggressively by movement control, vigorous mass testing and contact tracing as well as strictly enforced quarantine until it got wiped out again.
The most recent example is the city of Qingdao (青岛) in China. All nine million residents were tested in five days after a dozen new cases were discovered in a hospital used to treat coronavirus patients. Similar measures were also taken earlier in Beijing and Wuhan when new cluster of cases emerged.
Let us, for once, leave aside the debate about the political systems. At the end of the day, this is down to government efficiency and competence more than anything else, which is complemented by a robust grassroots outreach underneath. In the case of China, the grassroots network is organised in the form of neighbourhood committees, who take care of mundane but important tasks such as temperature checking, checking on residents’ health status, quarantine and travel history or even delivery of essentials to those who are vulnerable during the darkest days in Wuhan.
Having called myself a Londoner for more than a decade, I have to say that the UK government has left me wanting in almost every aspect of competence in handling a health crisis, with their haphazard lockdown, non-existing contact tracing and buggy Excel spreadsheets.
But to be fair, inept government is not the only one to be blamed for this vicious circle we are in. This may be a controversial point. But sadly, I feel we can no longer ignore the role of our own ignorant denial and irresponsible behaviour in aggravating this already dire situation.
The countries putting up a better fight against this pandemic ought to thank their own people for their discipline, respect for science and authority. They sacrificed a few months’ of freedom by staying at home, wearing masks and observing social distance for the collective greater good of the society. In turn, they were rewarded the freedom of being able to live their lives without fear and have more promising prospect for their livelihood. In stark contrast, it is mind blogging that there are still so many people here who dispute the importance of mask wearing or simply cannot behave responsibly (for their own long-term benefits).
A reader’s comment to Financial Times article “East-West divide: winner and losers in the Covid economy” put it well:
“There is a fundamental difference in mindset between the East and the West. In the East, the collective good takes precedence over the individual in the West, the rights – and more recently the (micro) sensitivities – of the individual are the starting point of everything. The East is about delayed gratification and the West is about instant gratification, as if there is no tomorrow. No wonder the East is better set up to fight an epidemic.”
So to sum this up simply, the UK and other western countries’ coronavirus strategy of “flattening the curve” sound sensible, on paper. But a false premise of governmental competency, as well as of public compliance, was what caused their downfall.
Knowing what I know, the saddest part of all is that, even a few more weeks of advance notice about the pandemic would not have helped countries such as the UK. Despite the confirmation of human-to-human transmission in late January, no one sprang into action – both the government and general public just watched with apathy, as if we were living in a bubble and this mysterious virus were merely a mishap on the other side of the world.
Mind me, I am not trying to sing all praises to everything China has done. I am acutely conscious of the initial cover-up and chaos in Wuhan. While the bruised city of Wuhan has become a showcase, I am concerned about the reluctance of talking about the unpleasant in the Chinese culture may bury this painful lesson amid the propaganda. I am also troubled by the so-called “Five-One” policy, which is so out of proportion that it has become the single biggest hurdle for Chinese citizens trapped overseas to return to their loved ones.
But then again, shouldn’t the courageous and the wise ask difficult questions to challenge their own belief?
As I am typing this, my last glimmer of hope of getting my life back has finally been dashed by the announcement of record daily new cases above twenty thousand in the UK. So now I need to end this article and go book my online grocery delivery slot before it runs out again for the next two weeks.