AsiaCoronavirusMagazine

China and the coronavirus – a global health emergency

The novel coronavirus was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation as the outbreaks double, quadruple and continue to infect individuals beyond Chinese borders. On location in Shanghai, The Perspective spoke to Jane Liu, a nurse, and Gloria Sheng, a clinical medicine student at Fudan University.

Jumping into a taxi at Shanghai Pudong International Airport in China, the taxi driver begins to small-talk about the upcoming Lunar New Year while driving by traditional buildings and opposing modern skyscrapers, towering over villages like giants. The taxi driver asks, “What is the population of Sweden?” I respond, “About 10 million”. With a frog-like laughter, he cries, “10 million people are leaving Shanghai to travel for the Lunar New Year, the whole Sweden is gone! Out! Away! Leaving Shanghai!”

On January 30th, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared coronavirus to be a global health emergency. The coronavirus, officially known as covid-19, was first leaked from Hubei province into other surrounding provinces. It is a zoonotic virus which has been transmitted from an unknown animal to a human, reportedly spread from the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan. The common signs of coronavirus infection include respiratory symptoms such as dyspnea (difficulty breathing), dry cough, fever and in the most severe cases, pneumonia. In the case of pneumonia, death could occur due to kidney failure. Nevertheless, most people do not suffer from the extreme cases of coronavirus and do not end up in hospital. The people who are high targets of severe coronavirus are individuals with low immune systems, usually over the age of forty. Those who have passed away have had pre-existing underlying health conditions. Since their immune systems are not very robust it is more difficult for these individuals to fight a virus.

Simultaneously, the largest migration event, Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival or the Lunar New Year, occurred as the Chinese welcome the Year of the Rat. To welcome the Year of the Rat, millions of Chinese people were expected to migrate across borders into their respective family provinces in order to visit family in their hometowns for celebrations and reunions. The travel season in China usually begins fifteen days before Lunar New Year’s Day and can last up to 40 days. Famous for being the largest annual human migration event in the world, around three billion trips were expected to be made during the 40 day travel rush. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the city of Wuhan forced a rapid emergency transport suspension. The Chinese government quarantined Wuhan in order to contain the outbreak of the coronavirus but an estimated five million people left the city, sparkling a domino effect of infections, spreading not only nationally but globally.

The Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, met Chinese President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China to discuss global and national prevention methods. The meeting led to the focus on three large operations; the rapid establishment of international coordination and operational support, the upscaling of country readiness and response operations and lastly, the accelerating priority of research and innovation.The Chinese government and state council ordered a national extension of the Chinese New Year public holiday, from January 23rd to February 10th, discouraging civilians from going outside. Fear and stress have drowned the streets of China, as families lock themselves into their homes to avoid any contact with other citizens, knowing there is some potential for the coronavirus to get to them.

When arriving in Xujiahui, a commercial district known for its large malls, I am welcomed by Jane, a respectable Chinese nurse with her face covered in a bright blue surgical face mask. Before we sit down in the welcoming but empty cafe on a quiet Monday morning, our temperatures are taken by two security guards. As we sit down, I take out a bottle of hand sanitizer, rub the disinfectant thoroughly through my hands and offer her some.

She accepts and proceeds to ask me if I have an extra bottle of hand-sanitizer for me to give her, adding, “The hospital I work at across the road has soon run out of hand sanitizer and face masks. We have to cautiously utilize the resources, we cannot be greedy.” She looks down, staring blankly at the ground and continues, “We have a heavy burden and I worry a lot at the moment, especially about the situations which may be more uncontrollable. I never imagined China would suffer from such a strong flu. The Chinese government can only control its people to a certain extent. It is our own responsibility to maintain personal hygiene, therefore, it is vital that everyone pays attention to the current advice; to wear a mask, wash your hands often, do not interact with too many people and try to stay at home. People have been encouraged to work from home. Schools and universities are going digital, gyms are posting exercise videos online, encouraging people to do home workouts.”

I continue to to ask her, “Do you have any hope, considering the large ongoing epidemic?” Jane looks at me and begins to update me on the latest local news, “Many of Shanghai’s famous hospitals have sent their most professional doctors and nurses to Wuhan to help at the local hospitals there. A hospital was built in just ten days. The doctors, nurses and volunteer workers are doing all they can to help, I have so much respect for them all.”

Huoshenshan hospital in Wuhan was built beyond ones imagination. The hospital was built at “China speed”, under a span of only ten days. The design plan, along with finalized drawings for construction, was completed within 60 hours. Then over 260 construction workers were put to work. Materials and professional equiptment, including 2000 computers, 2000 thermometers, 700 finger pulse oximeters and a batch of medical robots, were put into place following the completion of the hospital. With all these efforts, the hospital in Wuhan was able to take in patients suffering from coronavirus immediately. One Twitter user commented, “God made the universe in seven days. I think God was Chinese.”

The construction of Huoshenshan hospital, Wuhan, China. Photo: China News Service

Jane continues, “I do have hope but I think we have to be very careful and cautious – the results on how the virus proceeds are up to the combination of a million people that are responsible for their own personal hygiene.” She flicks up a CBN data map on her smartphone and points out, “Here you can keep track of who is affected by the virus in your proximity. It is smart to stay updated on how many individuals are affected in your district. Where are you living?” I press in my address and a bunch of red dots pop up. Jane clears the air, “See here, the closest person affected by the coronavirus is about 4.5 kilometres away from you. You should be fine, just be careful when you are outside.”

The Perspective asked Gloria Sheng, a clinical medicine student at Fudan University in Shanghai, the same question. “All my professors have gone to Wuhan to help with the ongoing epidemic. Most of them are doctors and nurses in the hospital affiliated with Fudan University. They are treating hundreds of coronavirus patients in Wuhan’s newly built hospital. The nurses and doctors protect themselves in the infectious disease wards by wearing face masks, goggles, gloves and protective clothing. You can even see the deep imprints that are left on their noses and cheeks from all the protective gear. Knowledge and expertise from all over China have been gathered and large efforts are being made to collectively overcome the virus. I am very scared, but also proud to see my professors on the battlefront of this epidemic. These doctors, nurses and volunteer workers are putting their lives on the line to help the greater masses.” Around 1500 Shanghai doctors and nurses specializing in different disciplines, from critical medicine to infectious disease, have taken off to Wuhan to provide medical support.

The social unrest within China continues, many are too scared to go outside. The lockdown of China is social, economic and political. The Chinese stocks have slipped, the global superpower struggles to restart their economy. The economic cost has mounted as businesses in China try to decide whether to re-open and global supply chains are disrupted. Mothers and fathers remain at home and scold their children for leaving the residence area. The thin layer of dust begins to grow thicker within restaurants, bars, schools, sport centers, libraries, offices and other public settings.

Nicole Skoglund

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