‘How to successfully deal with a pandemic and get away with it’ – the Chinese lesson

By Vera Lúcia Raposo

When COVID-19 swept through the rest of the world, everyone looked to China as a role model for how to deal with a pandemic. As a Westerner living in China, only 900 km from Wuhan, the outbreak’s epicentre, I can’t but be amazed by how China has managed to cope with such a health crisis. Chinese measures slowed down the progress of the virus and were essential to give other countries time to prepare (although most governments wasted that opportunity). The WHO even proclaimed that China defined ‘the standard of care’ in dealing with health crises, and urged the rest of the world to follow the Chinese example.

There is only one small problem: the Chinese modus operandi cannot be emulated anywhere else in the world.

The Chinese lesson on ‘how to successfully deal with a pandemic and get away with it’ entails some basic requirements that are only met in China. Obviously, it requires a centralised political power able to make decisions that are enforceable across the entire territory without question or hesitation. No less important, it requires the technological resources to put in place the measures adopted. In the 21st century, states cannot control a pandemic with a policeman at each corner, but need advanced technology, robots and algorithms, basically everything you see in science fiction movies. China had the technological know-how and, more than that, had already in place sophisticated technological mechanisms to monitor people.

But the most striking requirement for coping with a pandemic seems to be a ‘control-friendly law’, something that most democracies (fortunately) lack. Take the example of the long mandatory quarantine imposed in Wuhan. No government could have pulled it off as China did. The point is that no matter how compliant a community is, governments are not able to keep people at home (effectively at home, and not ‘at home, but going jogging’ or ‘at home, but going for a ride’) for a long period. Unless, of course, the legal framework allows for so called ‘draconian measures’.

One of the most restrictive home quarantines imposed in Europe was in Italy, where people found in violation of quarantine risked a three-month jail sentence or a 200 Euro fine. Despite these penalties, parties were still held and people played ping pong on the beach. In the UK, also ostensibly under a strict lockdown, people went to the beach. Under Chinese law, a breach of quarantine can lead to 7 years in prison, and believe me, the authorities do not fool around on this matter.

All of the amazing technology used by China requires a legal framework that authorises (and encourages) its use. Mass surveillance mechanisms, such as facial recognition to identify people violating home confinement or failing to wear face masks, would be banned under most Western legal systems. Mobile apps that allow contact tracing are raising huge concerns in Europe. If allowed, it seems that their use has to be voluntary (but if that is the case, how effective will they be?). Privacy is one of the most important values in the Western world, and although many people reveal the most private details on social media, they are not eager for the government to know about them.

The most successful mechanisms in fighting the pandemic – isolation and contact tracing – could not be put together in most jurisdictions. In the West, much less invasive measures were suggested and immediately abandoned under accusations of violating human rights. Had any other government tried to do what the Chinese government did (even though such measures saved many lives), it would have been crucified by the media (not a problem in China…) and would have lost the next election (also not a problem in China).

China has taught the rest of the world how to cope with a pandemic. I will be forever staggered (not always in a positive way) by how the Chinese government managed to cope with such a potentially massive health disaster. The blame is now on Western countries for not having taken the necessary precautions and having dismissed the situation as a Chinese problem, for failing to understand that it was a global problem and for lying about the lack of warning from China. Above all, I will be forever grateful to the Chinese people for their sacrifice, without which the pandemic would have been much more devastating for the rest of the world.


Paper title:  Can China’s ‘Standard of Care’ for Covid-19 Be Replicated in Europe? FREE

Author:  Vera Lúcia Raposo

Affiliations:  Faculty of Law of Macau University, China; Faculty of Law of Coimbra University, Portugal

Competing interests:  None

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