'They know how to keep people alive': Why China's coronavirus response is better than you think

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — China has become a popular scapegoat for the coronavirus pandemic, a narrative that has been encouraged by some of President Trump’s supporters. “President Trump must take China on,” wrote the Fox News primetime anchor Laura Ingraham on Twitter, asserting that “they created this health crisis.”

The disease did appear to originate in China, at a wet market — where meat, fish and live animals are sold — in Hubei province. And at first, China did attempt to downplay the severity of the disease caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19, making it difficult for both its own citizens and the rest of the world to grasp that an epidemic was at hand.

Though it has apparently contained the outbreak since, some in the United States have persisted in blaming China for the entire pandemic, including by calling it the “Wuhan coronavirus,” a designation that has widely been deemed racist.

But there are many lessons to be learned from how Beijing has responded to the disease, according to the top World Health Organization epidemiologist working on the coronavirus response there. He says that is especially the case for the United States because much of that response was learned from American public health officials.

“If I get COVID, I’m going to China,” said Bruce Aylward, MD, a Canadian epidemiologist who led the WHO team on the ground in February, when the coronavirus was exploding in China. “They know how to keep people alive."

Dr. Bruce Aylward, an assistant director-general of the World Health Organization speaks with a chart during a press conference about China's response to the new COVID-19 coronavirus, in Beijing on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020.  (Sam McNeil/AP)
Bruce Aylward of the World Health Organization during a press conference in Beijing on Feb. 24 about China's response to COVID-19. (Sam McNeil/AP)

Aylward spoke Friday to Yahoo News from WHO headquarters in Geneva, where he is based.

After returning from China, he and his colleagues published a report that praised the nation of 1.4 billion for “perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.”

Some in the United States have bristled at what they see as the overly deferential attitude of the WHO and other international organizations to Beijing’s communist masters. “If these organizations aren’t going to look out for the broader global interests, and are going to instead praise authoritarian regimes, it begs the question if it’s time to reevaluate our participation in them,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at a recent congressional hearing on the coronavirus.

Aylward has pushed back on such criticisms, arguing that there is much to learn from China — and much to be replicated. And he says that, despite tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade, Chinese epidemiologists learned in large part from their American counterparts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“They’re following the guidance the U.S. gives the world,” he said, noting that it was the fabled Epidemic Intelligence Service, an arm of the CDC, that taught China and many other nations how to track, contain and eradicate infectious diseases. And he praised Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health and Anne Schuchat of the CDC. Both are members of the White House coronavirus task force.

History aside, Aylward said China recognized far more quickly than people realized that the coronavirus had the potential to kill thousands. “There’s nothing going to hold it back. It’s gonna go,” he described the approach of authorities there. “But we can find the cases and isolate them.” He added that “for China, the consequences were too high — and the consequences were human life.”

A security guard wears a facemask to protect against the COVID-19 coronavirus as he stands guard at a checkpoint at the entrance to an alley in Beijing on February 20, 2020. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)
A security guard at the entrance to an alley in Beijing on Feb. 20. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

Many in the United States are coming around to a similar conclusion, though some of Trump’s supporters on the right continue to insist that the coronavirus is either a hoax or a minor disease being amplified by the president’s political adversaries. Trump himself appears to be taking the outbreak more seriously after weeks of complaining about its economic and political effects.

On Friday he declared a national emergency, signaling an escalation of the fight.

Aylward said that although respiratory illnesses like the common flu usually spread too quickly to track, the Chinese made a bold decision: “We gotta find every case, super-fast.” Despite the difficulty of doing so with a fast-moving virus that seems to spread easily and linger on surfaces, they implemented a contact tracing system that identified potentially ill people.

The severely ill were then isolated for treatment, while others were quarantined and monitored. “Everybody became a screener,” Aylward said, and use of technology was also “turbocharged.” This allowed the Chinese to not “waste” their tests but to use them on people who were genuinely ill, thus allowing them to uncover — and cut off — transmission chains.

The United States has not been able to find those transmission chains just yet because testing has been slow to get going, with only about 11,000 people tested across the country. The CDC tested only 77 people in the first half of this week.

Nurses work at an ICU ward specialized for patients infected by coronavirus in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province on Feb. 22, 2020. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via AP)
Nurses in an ICU ward for coronavirus patients in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 22. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via AP)

Aylward said that nothing about the Chinese response would be too difficult to do in the United States, and the severity and scope of the measures that have been taken there have sometimes been overblown in the media. Having witnessed that response firsthand, he said it was little like the heavy-handed lockdown described by Cruz and others.

Beijing took “a pragmatic approach,” Aylward said. “They didn’t panic.” At the same time, public health officials there made clear that the danger was real.

And if he is optimistic about China, he is just as optimistic about the United States, praising the “phenomenal ingenuity of the American people,” which, after all, helped eradicate global epidemics like polio. And Fauci, together with other American scientists, was central to the effort to contain the ravages of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.

“You guys are really good at this stuff,” Aylward said.

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