By Sarantis Michalopoulos
In fighting an epidemic, it is quite befitting to say that the only thing to fear is fear itself. In other words, panic could be a more fearful adversary than the virus itself, the Chinese Ambassador to the EU Zhang Ming’s told EURACTIV.com in an interview.
Speaking of the outbreak of the coronavirus, the diplomat said: “We have every resolve, confidence and capability in winning the fight against the outbreak”.
Wuhan is currently quarantined, and several videos published in EU media show a horrifying situation, with people shouting from their windows due to the lockdown. Do you have any information about Wuhan’s residents? How do they buy food and access other resources? How is the Chinese government addressing this critical situation in this city?
I also watched that video. Some who had watched the video were horrified probably because they do not speak Chinese and therefore cannot understand what the people were shouting about. They actually chanted “We can do it, Wuhan, go, go, go!”. Some were singing China’s national anthem with great pride. This was an expression of the confidence, optimism, determination and solidarity of the Wuhan people and all Chinese people during the “special times”, which is very touching.
Wuhan, a city of China’s Hubei Province, is where the first case of novel coronavirus infection was identified, and it is at the epicentre of this outbreak. Applying temporary access control in the city is a measure of crucial importance to outbreak containment. It is mainly to suspend the operation of city buses, subway, ferry and long-distance buses, and temporarily shut down the airport, railway stations and expressways. By strictly controlling the sources of infection and breaking the chain of transmission, we have managed to prevent the large-scale spread of the virus and help reduce cases in other parts of China and other countries.
It is a huge challenge to manage people’s movement in Wuhan, a city of over 10 million people. We have taken many measures to minimize the impact on every aspect of people’s lives. Now people’s essential travels and the transport of important supplies are provided for. Daily necessities are provided as a priority.
Premier Li Keqiang recently visited Wuhan’s affected areas and went to a local supermarket where he asked about supply and prices. Many Wuhan citizens posted videos on social media, describing the uplifting side of their lives during the “special times”, even with a sense of humour. It is fair to say that Wuhan is now enjoying social stability. People have a full understanding of the government’s containment measures and have cooperated closely. Of course, the sacrifice made by the Wuhan people to contain the epidemic deserves every respect.
How have you ensured that the virus is to a large extent limited in Wuhan? Is it only the lockdown or you have taken more measures?
The Chinese government attaches great importance to the control of the outbreak. A central leading group for outbreak response has been set up, and a comprehensive and multi-tiered prevention and control system has been put in place focusing on Hubei Province. We are making good efforts in various fields in a transparent, scientific and orderly way.
First, authoritative experts have been tracing the disease and offering technical guidance in the first place to figure out the type of virus and work out the technical solutions for diagnosis and treatment.
Second, we have given full support to Wuhan in tackling the disease. About 50 teams of medical professionals have been dispatched from all over the country to Hubei Province and large quantities of medical supplies have been delivered there.
Third, we have launched a nationwide campaign to contain the outbreak. Thirty-one provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions have activated level-1 public health emergency response and stepped up health check on outbound travellers to control the spread of the virus.
Fourth, we are making all-out efforts to treat patients. More than 200 patients have been cured and discharged from hospital. Two dedicated hospitals will be built in Wuhan in half a month to provide more than 2,000 hospital beds for more effective centralized treatment.
Fifth, we are gathering speed to develop effective drugs and vaccines at an early date.
Sixth, we are disseminating knowledge about how to prevent infection among the general public.
Seventh, China has stepped up international cooperation on combating the outbreak and shared information with the WHO and other countries in a timely manner. President Xi Jinping had phone conversations respectively with the leaders of France and Germany. Premier Li Keqiang and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also spoke on the telephone. The EU side appreciated China’s timely response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus and its openness and transparency and expressed the willingness to strengthen health cooperation with China.
The Chinese government has taken strong measures. China is good at mobilizing resources to meet major challenges. China has gained valuable experience in dealing with SARS, H1N1 influenza, avian influenza and Ebola virus. And China has built a solid technological and material foundation over the past seven decades since the founding of the People’s Republic. With all this in mind, we have every resolve, confidence and capability in winning the fight against the outbreak.
Do you consider restricting access to other parts of China too? Do you have other areas on your radar?
To contain the outbreak, the access control measure has been implemented successively in Wuhan and other surrounding cities since 23 January. Introducing the measure is an informed decision based on the characteristics of virus infection and the development of the outbreak. As the situation evolves, we will adjust and improve related policies and measures in accordance with the law to eventually contain the outbreak.
Do you believe that the World Health Organisation should have upgraded the threat level well before? Do you agree with the international public health emergency?
China values its cooperation with the WHO and welcomes the WHO’s participation in the response to this outbreak. WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus just visited China this week and WHO experts made a field trip to Wuhan. I noticed that WHO had declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. Dr Tedros also noted that China has taken extraordinary, strong measures and in many ways, China is setting a new standard for outbreak response.
As he said, this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China. On the contrary, WHO continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak. But with the spread of the virus unknown, WHO is concerned that the outbreak outside China might worsen and the virus might spread to countries with weaker health systems. He also stressed that it would be unnecessary to introduce measures to restrict the movement of international personnel and doesn’t recommend – and actually opposes curbs on travel or trade with China. China will continue to act with a serious and professional attitude, maintain close communication and cooperation, counter the outbreak and safeguard regional and global public health security together with WHO and other countries.
Are the reported numbers of deadly cases or contaminated people reliable?
Since January 20, the number of cases has been reported on a daily basis and the reporting is mandatory even for localities where no cases appear. This practice is adopted across the nation. On January 21, the National Health Commission of China began to gather and publish data about numbers of cases by province. The figures are updated in real-time every day and made known to people all over the country and the world.
China is well aware of the critical importance of accurate monitoring and release of case data to outbreak control. As President Xi Jinping put it, a case is a “devil” and “we must not allow any devil to hide”. To ensure the timely and accurate release of data, we have intensified monitoring efforts and improved the system of case identification and reporting. All the efforts are intended to ensure early identification, early reporting, early isolation and early treatment.
We have also combined big data with community management and other approaches to engage all community-level organizations in the collection and submission of case information. Considering high mobility during the Spring Festival, we carry out body temperature monitoring in crowded places of key areas, and conduct screening in an all-round manner.
Moreover, the Chinese government attaches great importance to the supervision of case data monitoring. The central steering group has dispatched supervisory teams to various parts of Hubei Province to ensure timely and accurate collection and release of case data. The State Council also encourages the general public to provide clues about underreporting of cases. Once underreporting is found, officials concerned will be held accountable.
What is your assessment regarding the origin of coronavirus? Several media reports suggested that the consumption of bats is behind the outbreak.
Since the outbreak of the epidemic, there has been continuous research to investigate the source of the virus. According to the recent testing by the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the novel coronavirus is likely to come from wild animals. Bats host a variety of viruses. Some researchers suggest that the outbreak could be caused by a new strain of coronavirus starting in bats. Yet the modes of transmission are yet to be ascertained.
Do you have any idea how many EU citizens are currently in Wuhan? What procedures do the Member States have to go through in order to repatriate their citizens? What is China’s response?
The EU side is probably in a better position to answer the first question.
As an old Chinese saying goes, “Anything that puts human lives at stake must be treated with utmost care.” This is a deep-rooted traditional value in Chinese culture. The Chinese government always puts people’s life and health first, including the health and safety of foreign nationals in China. China protects the legitimate rights and interests of foreign citizens in accordance with the law. Currently, foreigners including EU citizens in Wuhan and other cities have sufficient access to daily necessities and medical care.
Assessing the current situation in a calm and science-based manner, China does not see a need for massive evacuation. WHO Director-General Dr Tedros said that WHO does not recommend doing so. In fighting the epidemic, it cannot be more befitting to say that the only thing to fear is fear itself. Panic could be a more fearful adversary than the virus itself.
Under the current circumstances, it is important to keep calm and rational, not to overreact, and there is good reason to have confidence in the ability of the Chinese government to contain the outbreak. As to the repatriation request made by some countries, China will, consistent with international practices and the relevant Chinese regulations on the epidemic prevention and control, make corresponding arrangements and provide necessary assistance and facilitation.
Do you have any information about where we are regarding potential cure/vaccination/detection methods of coronavirus?
After the outbreak, it took just over one week for Chinese experts to identify the pathogen as a novel coronavirus. China took the initiative to share the virus genome sequence with the WHO and other countries in a timely manner. WHO praised our efforts as record-breaking in the shortest possible time. This allows all countries to promptly develop the diagnostic reagent, enhancing the capacity for identifying cases in time.
Vaccine and pharmaceutical research is a race against time. Experts from China and across the world are actively involved and have made progress. A few days ago, a key Chinese laboratory isolated three virus strains which could be used for developing a vaccine. Institutes of the Chinese Academy of Science have screened out several medicines which could help contain the virus and have the potential for clinical application. This is good news.
I know it’s not the proper moment to ask this question, but what do you expect the economic impact due to coronavirus will be?
I am confident that the Chinese economy will continue to steadily move in a positive direction. Such a general trend will not change because of a preventable and controllable epidemic. The internal dynamism, strong resilience and huge market potential offered by the 1.4 billion people will not go subdued.
The epidemic might lead to short-term fluctuations in the financial markets. Yet quite a number of experts wrote recently in the Financial Times and other media that neither SARS nor Ebola caused a long-term reversal in market trends. I don’t think we need to be overly worried.
China will finish building a moderately prosperous society in all respects by the end of this year. We will continue to press ahead with reform and opening-up and push for new progress in China-EU economic and trade cooperation. This will lend strong impetus to the economic growth of both China and the EU.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the European people from across the sectors for their compassion and support for China’s fight against the coronavirus outbreak. Since the very beginning, China and Europe have maintained close communication and cooperation. At present, the battle against the epidemic has entered a critical stage, and there is still a large demand for medical protection supplies in Hubei Province yet to be met. The Chinese Mission to the EU is working with the European side to get more procurement information. We also appreciate and welcome the good will indicated by the EU side in providing support and assistance in this regard.