China’s advanced technology has been key in its successful fight against Covid-19. Picture: AP
China’s advanced technology has been key in its successful fight against Covid-19. Picture: AP

There are lessons for SA from China’s successful battle against Covid-19

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published May 4, 2020

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South Africa is being commended worldwide for its timely and decisive efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Its success to date is largely due to the fact it is following the Chinese model of beating back the virus, whereby China kept millions of citizens at home, engaged in meticulous testing and tracing, and isolation of those infected.

China’s success was the result of its systematic, comprehensive and co-ordinated strategy, and to the best of its ability, the South African government is doing the same with its plan of action and five levels of lockdown.

Once China realised the severity of the virus, it orchestrated the largest mass mobilisation effort in history, confining tens of millions of citizens to their homes for over two months and isolating those infected on an enormous scale in stadiums and exhibition halls.

The government closed schools, built more than a dozen vast temporary hospitals and deployed thousands of medical staff to Wuhan and Hubei province.

Officials hastily implemented a policy of zero contact known as ling jiechu, whereby residents in Wuhan and even in Beijing had to have formal passes to get out of their apartment buildings, and were only allowed to go to food stores every few days. Other than to buy food and medicine, people were not allowed outside under any circumstances, even to walk their pets.

Neighbourhood committees took charge of shopping and delivery arrangements, and where people had to make use of public transport, buses operated at 50% capacity, and tickets were bought on smartphone apps.

Caretakers at apartment buildings were forced to act as security guards and monitor people’s temperature, and inspected food and medical deliveries.

Drones were deployed on the streets to yell orders at people to stay inside their apartments and scold them for not wearing masks. Those who showed even mild symptoms of the virus were separated from their families, and even from their children.

The Chinese culture of collectivism, which accepts limits to personal freedom, led to the Chinese people generally accepting the emergency measures. The national mantra became “No one left behind”.

The government devised a massive surveillance system using advanced technology and big data to track infections.

BeiDou, China’s GNSS constellation, helped to track the infected and affected places, and with reliable data and precise mapping and imagery the government was able to build thousands of makeshift hospitals.

Together with Alibaba and Tencent, the Chinese government developed a colour-coded health-rating system, whereby facial recognition software was linked to a mandatory phone app that colour-coded people based on their contagion risk.

The green, yellow, or red coding reflected in QR codes determined whether citizens were allowed access to public spaces, subways, shopping malls, offices, or cafés. The facial-recognition technology was even adapted so that it could identify people even if they were masked.

BeiDou has also enabled drones to monitor congested places and drones have carried medical supplies, with agricultural drones spraying disinfectants. Robots have also been used to spray disinfectants, have been used as waiters in restaurants, and in the vending of hand sanitisers and rice. In hospitals robots performed diagnosis and thermal imaging, and transported supplies. The screening of patients was done by 5G-enabled thermometers, and bracelets were used to monitor body changes.

China’s incredibly advanced technology has been key in its successful fight against Covid-19, and as a result transmission in China has all but ended in most regions, and new infections were due to imported cases.

China’s extensive use of technology is not necessarily something that Africa can easily replicate, but South Africa has already started using smartphones to track and trace infections.

What we are able to implement, albeit at great cost to our economy, is the restrictive measures used by China in order to get the spread of the virus under control.

This is already under way, and the South African government has been at great pains to take into consideration our own very specific social conditions, and the needs of vulnerable sectors of our population.

The World Health Organization has singled out South Africa for commendation on measures it has taken to fight the pandemic. This is the time to show support and solidarity for the government’s fight against Covid-19, and exercise the same level of self-discipline as those in China to win this monumental battle.

* Shannon Ebrahim is the group foreign editor for Independent Media

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