How China is winning the war against Covid-19

My Malaysian colleague who lives in China messaged me a few days ago. He is now reconsidering his decision to return to Malaysia at the end of the month – because he’s worried about the spread of Covid-19 in Malaysia.

Oh the irony! A guy living in China, worried about travelling to Malaysia for fear of catching this infectious disease.

Irony aside, his concern isn’t unfounded. Covid-19 cases in Malaysia are on a steep rise and threaten to turn into a wildfire, just when we thought we had it under control.

Another wave of cases has descended upon us, the number of infected people rising to 428 on Sunday, with an alarming spike of 190 cases up to noon on Sunday.

Worldwide, the total number of people infected in 154 countries as of Sunday had passed 157,000, with at least 5,839 deaths. Italy, Iran and South Korea are bearing the brunt of the latest wave.

In the midst of this global mayhem, something curious has happened.

Covid-19 cases have ceased to make headlines in China.

That’s because China has successfully contained the disease. Malaysia has much to learn from how they achieved this difficult feat.

Certainly our health ministry and the frontliners fighting the disease deserve all the praise we can shower upon them; things would be worse if they had not acted well.

In fact, the situation is going to get worse as most of the 14,500 Malaysians who attended the recent tabligh convention at a Sri Petaling mosque have yet to be traced.

Under the circumstances, we can and should learn from the experience of others – in this case China.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), in examining China’s response, stated in its report that “China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic”.

WHO added that “China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile, and aggressive disease containment effort in history”.

On Feb 10, there were 2,478 new Covid-19 cases in China. On March 13, there were only 11 – a staggering 225-fold decrease in slightly more than a month. On Sunday, China had only 20 new cases. And Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, has closed all its temporary hospitals.

China did many things right. The philosophy that drove it all is straightforward: speed at scale. It’s not easy to implement, but China has pulled it off, stopping the virus dead in its tracks.

The most draconian measure was the lockdown of Wuhan, essentially isolating more than 50 million people from the rest of the population. The other incredibly impressive feat was the building of a 1,000-bed hospital within 10 days. But there were other less dramatic but equally important measures as well.

One of these is their ability to quickly identify those who are infected. When there is a suspected case of the virus, some of their medical facilities have the capability to send a medical team to get the person tested and diagnosed within four to seven hours.

Another has been their remarkable approach to medical care. To eliminate the barrier against people seeking treatment, the Chinese government decided to make both testing and treatment of Covid-19 free.

They also increased the prescription for the necessary medicines from the standard one month’s supply to three months. The popular Chinese chat platform WeChat is being used to order these prescriptions, which means doctors’ visits are unnecessary and patients can get the medicines delivered.

Technology, specifically Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, are playing a major role. A core component is the most controversial of China’s measures and one that is at complete odds with how most of the world views it: privacy.

China has near non-existent privacy laws and this means the Chinese government can use the enormous amount of data that its people generate to its benefit.

The ethics of this practice is up for debate, but its effectiveness is not. The Chinese government’s ability to mine the treasure trove of data at its disposal was pivotal in turning the tide.

The Chinese government used location tracking via smartphones to identify the locations of those infected, and allocated the often limited medical resources to these high-risk areas.

Thanks to the ubiquity of mobile payments in China, those who purchased medical supplies could be identified and this was fed into the system to keep track of the spread of the virus.

The most popular payment apps, WeChat Pay and Alipay, show the colours green, yellow or red, depending on the health status of the user. This has been especially useful in checkpoints to ensure those who are infected do not travel to areas free of the virus.

Hospitals have also jumped on the AI bandwagon. One of the largest stressors on the medical system is the lack of qualified doctors to be able to accurately diagnose Covid-19. Enter the Beijing-based startup Intervision’s powerful AI tool.

Haibo Xu, the chair of radiology at Zhongnan Hospital, says the software “can identify typical signs or partial signs of Covid-19 pneumonia” by scouring images of lung CT scans of those suspected of being infected.

It’s been a real boon to the industry, as evidenced by the fact that it’s now being used in 34 hospitals in China and has already gone through a staggering 32,000 cases.

All in all, China has learned a lot from its hard-fought battle against the deadly virus. It’s in our best interest that we learn as much as possible so that we can avoid or at the very least counter the next pandemic that comes our way.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.