What Nepal can learn from China about COVID-19

Guangzhou at rush hour this week. China's experience in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a debate about whether authoritarianism or democracy works better in a crisis like this. Photo: Pramod Ghimire

The spread of the novel coronavirus has led governments across the world to implement extraordinary measures to rein in the pandemic and cushion its serious economic impact.

It has been nearly four months since the virus was first identified in Wuhan, and as it spread the response of countries has been a tale of two intersection curves. On one curve, is the unprecedented lockdown of China’s Hubei province for two months since 23 January which is now being lifted gradually, with travel restricted eased from 25 March.

On the other curve, countries across the world including Nepal and India have tried to enforce draconian measures with strict lockdowns to prevent the virus from ricocheting within their boundaries.

What was framed as a disaster for the Chinese government at the start of the pandemic has now earned it plaudits for arresting the spread of the virus within the country and for demonstrating its international leadership in supporting the rest of the world. This U-turn has shown China’s capacity for administrative enforcement and campaign-style mass mobilisation to combat the epidemic.

There is a history to this from the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949: under Chairman Mao the Ministry of Health established a centralised reporting system for epidemic prevention and subsequent network nodes at each provincial, local and township level to facilitate swift response. Once top-down directives were enforced, it is difficult to not abide by and subsequently by 1962 China had completely eradicated smallpox -- 10 years before WHO announced its global extermination.

After China opened up in 1978, local institutions gained policy flexibility to design their own reforms and mobilise resources. The central government set economic targets measured in GDP growth at local level with stronger incentives for development and investment. Regional competition became the engine to growth with local governments rewarded and promoted while those failing to meet targets were punished.

Each agency in local government, apart from their individual functions (law enforcement, public campaign, education etc) were all involved in the process and all of them contributed to development. At that time, for a country with little human capital but abundant labour, the phenomenon dubbed the ‘bee-hive campaign’ was the pilot strategy for aggressive growth that has lasted for well over four decades.

A lot has changed since 1978. China is now a global powerhouse with significant leverage in the world economy. While regional competition exists to achieve economic targets, during times of emergencies China’s bureaucracy is swift to implement inter-government coordination measures. For instance, during the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, the central government paired each affected county with a non-affected one to speed up recovery. As a result, 99% of the rebuilding was completed within 2 years.

Similarly, after the Wuhan outbreak, cities from across China immediately deployed more than 20,000 doctors, nurses and 180 medics and also mobilise workers to build a temporary hospital in just 10 days. In a way, China’s authoritarian system that allows it to bypass the checks-and-balances and legislative scrutiny in democracies is why China is able to respond so swiftly even if some of these policies are deemed unpopular.

China’s response to COVID-19, however, had a major flaw: it started too late. This had led to a vigorous debate about the merits of authoritarianism vs democracies, and China vs the West. However, judging from results so far, China’s response shows that its system is better equipped to handle crises not just efficiently, but also swiftly.

When WHO declared COVID-19 a global health emergency on 30 January, I was in Beijing and there were barely enough masks. A month later, not only had China contained the spread of the virus, it is now flying masks and other medical equipment across the world, including Nepal.

The Chinese have a phrase ‘Time is money, efficiency is life’ coined during a parade in Tiananmen Square in 1984. Xi Zhongxun, the then member of the Standing Committee endorsed the slogan as a symbolism to reform and open up. Four decades later, his son President Xi Jinping has put the slogan to the test. Xi’s goal now is to revive China’s economy and normalise life. His father’s motto could apply equally to other countries that are now struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Raunab Singh Khatri is a graduate student from the Yenching Academy of Peking University in China.

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