From the Epicentre of CoronavirusChinese Views of Britain's Chaotic Lockdown
As China loosens its lockdown, Tom Williams reports on how its citizens still cannot believe the lax approach of the UK to testing, tracing and social distancing.
For 76 long days, Wendy Liu* treated her city of Wuhan as if it was a nuclear disaster zone. For a rare trip out of the house for supplies, the designated family member would wear a surgical mask, medical goggles, a raincoat and shoe covers. Upon returning, they would douse themselves and their clothing and disinfectant.
Was this paranoid and overzealous? Citizens of China, for whom life has returned almost to normal, think instead that we in the West are the ones taking enormous risks. As the UK stumbles into a haphazard end to its lockdown, the Chinese I spoke with for this article expressed a range of shock, bewilderment and pity.
Unanimously, they see the UK and Western nations as having been unwilling to take the measures needed to stamp out the Coronavirus and prevent a second wave. Just a few months ago, they were terrified for the future of their country. Now, they cannot imagine a better place to be.
We cannot believe what we see on TV from overseas… It is as if there is no lockdown at all!Tracey Chang, 22, Guangzhou
“We looked at staying at home, taking these measures, not just as a way to save our own lives, but as a contribution to our country. You must not give this virus a chance”, she exhorted to me through a translator over WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging service similar to WhatsApp.
“We cannot believe what we see on TV from overseas!” Tracey Chang, a 22-year-old student from Guangzhou tells me. “People in countries with many cases go out without masks, people walking in large groups, parks full of people. It is as if there is no lockdown at all!”
“I have even heard”, she said, pausing as if the notion was absurd “that in some countries, if you think you might be sick, you can’t even get a test straight away!” When I explained to her the testing delays and bottlenecks that affected the UK and US for months after the first cases of the virus, she was incredulous.
Donald Trump has consistently claimed that his hard line on trade negotiations has made China and other countries respect America again. His administrations bungling response to the Coronavirus has made a mockery of this claim.
In China, she explains, the government are extraordinarily rigorous with identifying every possible case. She explained to me that pharmacies were often refusing to sell paracetamol. The argument went that because this lowered a patient’s temperature, it could potentially mask symptoms of the virus. This could delay someone in reporting to a hospital, giving the virus valuable time to spread.
The Chinese state has serious questions to answer about its transparency and reaction speed in the early weeks of the crisis. But no one can deny that when the government sprung into action, it did so with ruthless efficiency. Their epidemic ended with just over 82,000 confirmed cases and 4633 deaths, although some outside sources consider these figures to be suspect.
But despite their optimism, they acknowledged that the experience of COVID-19 has changed their life forever. Shortly after the quarantine was lifted, Tracey Chang went for a run around her neighbourhood. She broke a minor sweat and returned home. But in many places in China, entering an apartment complex still requires a temperature check. While medical authorities consider this an unreliable method of screening, Chinese authorities consider this better than nothing.
The scanner beeped red. Her building manager, she claims, was on the verge of calling the authorities, which would have likely landed her quarantined in a hospital. Protesting, she stripped off her outer layers and waited for her body temperature to drop. She was eventually allowed back inside. But this anecdote shows just how cautious the Chinese are being about the virus. Recent reports of a second outbreak along the Russian border has emphasized how fragile the situation remains.
Siena Li, a 29-year-old marketing professional from Shanghai, takes a more philosophical approach. In her city, even bars and restaurants are open. The exotic French quarter is seeing tourists, albeit domestic ones, throng its streets again.
“I wonder if we can take a blessing from this whole situation” she tells me. “Before this, life was moving so fast! But this whole situation has made us slow down, and realise the things that are important. Make sure to hug your family as tight as you can. You all need each other so much.”
*Name changed as source requested anonymity.