The global health crisis emerging from the spread of the coronavirus is attracting renewed attention on the ability of health systems to tackle an emergency of such great magnitude.
In recent weeks, the capacity of the Chinese state to respond to the crisis has received widespread attention. China has demonstrated its growing scientific prowess in identifying the coronavirus within a week and sharing its DNA sequence with the global scientific community.
It has also enforced so-called “mega-quarantines”. The city of Wuhan (11 million inhabitants) is in complete lockdown mode while travel restrictions have been imposed on neighbouring cities in the region. State media reports show deserted streets, effective roadblocks and the widespread deployment of the police and military personnel. Food is apparently abundantly available in grocery stores and social order is being maintained.
While it has impressed large parts of the world in recent decades with its impressive ability to undertake major infrastructure projects, the current crisis has provided ample evidence of the extraordinary logistical capacity that China possesses to undertake major construction projects within its territory.
Social media sites have been inundated with video clips that provide daily updates of round-the-clock activity as two large (1000-bed) makeshift hospitals in Wuhan are expected to be completed within a week!
Unlike the Sars epidemic in 2003—when China was criticised by the international community for withholding early warning information and thereby delaying efforts to mount an effective response at a crucial early stage—the current crisis appears to have been handled much better.
There is, however, emerging evidence that the local authorities in Wuhan could have reacted much earlier. The timing, however, could not have been worse as the spread of the coronavirus has coincided with the most important national holiday season in the country.
And although the cancellation of large public gatherings and inter-regional transportation arrangements in connection with the Lunar New Year have been praised by many health experts, other emergency measures such as mega-quarantines are being criticised.
For example, some argue that not only do quarantines have an uncertain impact for disease containment, they also often tend to negatively impact the most vulnerable social groups in the quarantined zones (e.g. migrants).
In the globalised world that we live in, viruses can spread quickly. Indeed, there is already a growing amount of concern on the ability of other countries, including China’s neighbours, to respond to such crises. In particular, we all should draw attention on the capacity of low-income countries—with poorly funded health systems, inadequate infrastructure and weak state capacity – to respond to such threats. The next few months will be critical not just for China but for all of us.