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Report from China: COVID-19 a tale of two systems

An in-depth look at two very different responses to the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States and China
By staff |
March 17, 2020
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Guangdong, China - There is chaos in America right now surrounding COVID-19. Americans are receiving conflicting information every day about the virus, with no direction from the Trump administration. The Trump administration has decided that the best course of action is to do nothing, with Trump himself declaring “I don’t take responsibility at all.” When the Center for Disease Control (CDC) releases a report, Trump will directly contradict their findings in an attempt to downplay COVID-19’s immediate threat and bolster his own image. The resulting pandemonium has left Americans without guidance on how they should protect themselves and their families against this very deadly disease.

Here in China, I witnessed a much more concerted response to COVID-19. China’s centrally planned socialist system allowed for widespread and identical action in every single city. Entire cities were required to undergo quarantine, as businesses and restaurants were told to shut their doors. Only essential services like grocery stores and pharmacies were required to remain open. Through the aid of the government, these places experienced very few shortages and kept their shelves full. Everyone was required to wear a medical face mask if going out in public, and there were temperature checks at the entrance of every building. Entire hospitals in heavily afflicted areas were constructed in as little as 10 days. The government also guaranteed to pay for the full cost of testing and treatment for anyone infected with the virus. For those uninfected but forced to stay home during the quarantine, China also made it compulsory for businesses to pay their employees like normal.

The United States, with its absent leadership and for-profit healthcare system, is taking none of these steps on a national level. At the same point of the virus’s timeline that we’re now at in the United States, China already had entire cities under quarantine. For comparison, testing in the U.S. has been pathetic, where they only tested 77 people this last week. Trump has already said that even if a vaccine were to be released, our for-profit system wouldn’t guarantee it would be available to everyone. Without access to guaranteed sick leave, working-class people are forced to make the difficult choice between remaining at work and exposing themselves to the virus or staying at home with their families while earning no income.

Instead, the Trump administration’s response to the outbreak has been solely focused on propping up Wall Street. The Federal Reserve released $1.5 trillion in stimulus to prop up a zombie bull market, with seemingly no effect as shareholders continued to shed assets. Trump has also implemented a strict 30-day travel ban from Europe, creating chaos at airports that saw places like Chicago O’Hare dangerously jam-packed with Americans trying to return home and risking spread of the virus. Trump’s response to the outbreak has been so catastrophic that Americans can’t even get the simplest things like consistent information about the virus.

One of the most underrated parts of the Chinese government trying to limit the virus's spread was a massive public safety awareness campaign. Every day I received multiple text messages with updates about the outbreak. Every major Chinese app, such as WeChat and Meituan, had a section about the virus with statistics about it, if there were cases near you, and what vital information you should know in order to protect yourself. There were signs in every apartment building about how to wash your hands, what you should do to self-quarantine, and what kinds of supplies you should have on hand. Many places even required you to register in an app with your recent travel and health information before you were allowed entry.

The United States’ messy capitalist system has made it so that there is no such widespread and effective campaign designed to protect working-class people. As such, many are without guidance at the moment. In a return to an almost feudalistic society, states and cities are left to fend for themselves and make up their own public safety policies. So here are some tips that I learned from China’s carefully coordinated response to the epidemic:

1. Stay calm -- Mass panic buying only leaves fewer supplies for people who need it. The virus needs to be taken seriously, but level heads allow us to combat it more easily. Hoarding things like toilet paper or face masks helps no one; take only what you need. You should be buying canned goods, non-perishables, and any prescription medications you might need in case you need to quarantine. Think of it like preparing for a hurricane or a major snowstorm.

2. Wash your hands -- Do it for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. This is the best tool you can use to help prevent getting it yourself. We use our hands for everything, and just about any time you touch an outside surface somewhere, you should wash your hands. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your sleeve, not your hands. Carry hand sanitizer with you in case you can't get to a bathroom quickly. If you've been handling anything others may have used, like a shopping cart or a door handle, don't touch your face until you can wash your hands. Also disinfect your phone. They’re one of the most unclean things we handle on a daily basis.

3. Assume everyone has the disease by now -- This isn't to say that everyone does actually have it, but you should be living under the assumption that everyone you come into contact with already does. The amount of testing done in the U.S. is a disgrace at best and a human rights violation at worst. Thousands of people we don't know about already have it, so you should assume it's around you already and take the necessary precautions. Even if your city is only reporting a handful of cases, we just don't know because of how people travel. Someone could have caught it in Seattle and then traveled to Miami where they are now spreading it. Just try and keep your distance.

4. Don't go to crowded places -- While those cheap plane tickets might seem alluring, just don't do it. Airports are the last place you want to be right now. Crowded places also include things like restaurants and movie theaters - anything that has you in close proximity to other people. Avoid them for now. Although it's painful for many, it’s a good thing that major outlets such as the NBA or Broadway are suspending or canceling their activities. We are talking about an epidemic here. Social events such as weddings, parties, or even children’s play dates should also be postponed.

5. If you think you're sick, please do not go out in public -- Symptoms of COVID-19 include high fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath. If you’re suddenly experiencing any of these, stay home. For many the symptoms might be mild, but to others they are deadly. Avoid spreading it to other people if you think you might be sick. This is why you should have food supplies and medication at the ready in case you need to stay home for an extended period of time. We are herd animals and we need to protect the weakest among us. Only go to a doctor if you have very severe symptoms and inform them of your situation beforehand.

These tips were just a few examples of the widespread information China provided to every one of its citizens. Due to the rudderless leadership of the Trump administration, the United States is still unable to effectively provide even the most basic information to its people. These two systems’ responses to the COVID-19 outbreak could not be more diametrically opposed.

In China, its socialist system provided a meticulous, centrally planned response that completely suffocated the epidemic and protected its people. Things are finally returning to normal here only because of the carefully organized actions from the government. Meanwhile in the U.S., its capitalist system continues to haphazardly and inefficiently combat the outbreak which is quickly spiraling out of control. The U.S. would be well served in following the shining example from China and developing a universal healthcare system that puts the needs of its people over the profits of wealthy corporations.

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