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A People’s War against COVID-19: Unmasking the Governing Power in China

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Arjun Kumar, Soumyadip Chattopadhyay

This talk, titled A People’s War Against COVID 19: Unmasking the Governing Power in China was organized by IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute as part of its series The State of Cities #CityConversations on 28th May 2021.

IMPRI

It was kickstarted by Dr. Ziming Li, who is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Regional and Urban-Rural Development, Wuhan University, China. She was earlier a research assistant at the University of Florida, hence she began by elucidating the preconceived notions about coronavirus and China in the US.

She made use of her paper called “Fighting COVID-19: China in Action” to show how the American perspective constitutes the belief that there is a lack of clarity and transparency in the Chinese systems, and that a draconian approach has been brought into being.

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A super-power like the USA attributes its dearth of management and domestic failure to China’s “fault” where there was none. Wuhan, the city which was where the first clusters of cases emerged, has a population of about 11 million, while the density of the same is 23,885 persons/km square. It is cleaved by two rivers, the Yangtze River and Hanhe River. Because of its demographic, high accessibility to other provinces, and population density, it is a center of economic activity.

The unknown causes, the limited capacity of hospitals, and sparse local health expenditure lead to the spread of the virus. Shortage of beds, facilities, and trained medical staff further pushed the steep rise of cases, not to mention the unequal distribution of health resources across districts. Then came about a sudden lockdown on 23rd January 2020, because of a gathering of 11 million people in the Spring Festival.

Soon, two special hospitals called Leishenshan and Huoshenshan were built, the decision was approved on 25th January, and it took two weeks for the construction to get done with, by a state-owned construction corporation. The operations there happened between the said dates of 8th February to 28th March, and everyone with access to the internet could supervise the progress online. The facilities held a capacity of more than 2600 beds and provided free treatment for every single patient who sought to be admitted there.

In total, 16 mobile cabin hospitals undertook operations for suspected cases in Wuhan, with 13,000 hospital beds. Most of this number was curated for in less than three days and provided free healthcare, food services, and entertainment for the patients, which is truly commendable in times of a crisis like this. Exactly 76 days later, lockdown ended, since zero cases were reported, and this achievement was celebrated by lighting up the Yangtze River.

These events really are a foil to the resilience of the Chinese government, and give countries like our lessons in how varied local and extra-local stakeholders respond to public health crises, how governing parties in the system adjust responses to the dynamics of COVID-19, and how pandemic mitigation reorganized existing community governance. Even common people sprung to action, volunteering at spaces in whatever minimal capacities they could and highlighted the traditional culture of collectivism in Eastern Asia.

There was a clear top-down strategy, enunciating how community and neighborhoods are essential players in advocating leadership action. Not just commoners but NGOs gave sizeable chunks of allocation to inform people of the gravity of the situation, check temperatures at public spaces, nudge people to self-police themselves, practice social distancing and do away with stringent punishments. Such rare events test agile and adaptive governance, and in turn, organizations learn from converging and conflict lessons.

Pro-growth urban governance has two types of centralization: vertical and horizontal. The former holds governance restructuring between central and local governments, and is a developmental state during the crisis, while the latter is all about integration between state and society, civic factors and social forces, grid governance, and mobilized support from people through learned experiences.

The adage that was stuck by was “early test, early report, early diagnose and early quarantine”. When talking in numbers, some 350 medical teams and 42600 medical workers were dispatched for support.

Dr Ziming explained how the terms family and country are synonymous with each other because of the integrity they hold in people’s minds.

Some reporting of cases before the Spring festival and none after it is proof enough in itself that incentives offered as salary raises and grassroots cooperation worked well.

Philosophy of China’s governance and mitigation strategy: A single spark can start a prairie fire.

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Then we welcomed Prof Xiangming Chen, Paul E Raether Distinguished Professor of Global Urban Studies and Sociology, Center for Urban and Global Studies (CUGS), Trinity College, USA. He presented a paper highlighting the dichotomy of China and Italy with comparisons of Wuhan and Milan, bringing forth how trust and social capital matter, along with sharpening regional and border dimensions, pivoting the pandemic to the BRI and globalization that is to follow.

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He contrasted on the governmental response as a difference-maker, as in the absolute lockdown of Hubei put an end to the new cases hurriedly, but phased quarantine in Lombardy was a model of failure. On making the medical infrastructure work, he said that to contain the spread of the virus, local medical staff should be mentally braced to uphold extraordinary pressure.

Communal and individual responses are just as valuable in alleviating a catastrophe, bottom-up cooperation has to give way to top-down containment and vice-versa- Prof Xiangming Chen

Norms of reciprocity, civic engagement, and mutual trust are vital underlying factors in the Italian model, but networks of social capital are conducive to the united national response from the bottom-up.

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After our guests wrapped up their insights on the papers presented, we had an open discussion with other academics and the audience on four primary questions:

  • How will India turn out through the current wave?
  • Where will the Global South be on the other side?
  • As a scholar or official, what will you do for your people?
  • What are/will be the fruitful areas of China-India comparative studies on pandemic responses and beyond?

Prof Jagan Shah, Senior Infrastructure Adviser, Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), British High Commission (BHC); Former Director, National Institute of Urban Affair (NIUA), New Delhi, accentuated the data analyzed, and talked of the harmonization of Confucianism and communism.

He underscored how the community grid is ubiquitous and standardized in China, how we are likely to find similar, if not the same treatments and consultations in facilities across the country, but Indian facilities are marked by variation. 

He has worked on data evidence-based decision-making and told how such a way of coping with diseases is not dictated or led but served by technology, which is a great tool to bring out innate capacities of the state. He lauded the use of geolocation-based contact tracing, the example of QR codes being used to do so, and gave reasons to why we shouldn’t rejoice too quickly because there is never a quick end to the pandemic.

Dr Shubhagato Dasgupta, Director, Scaling City Institutions for India (Sci-Fi) Sanitation initiative, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi, also vocalized how refreshing it was to hear from the ground, prima-facie main concerns that came up and ideated in retrospect. He appreciated the sense of positioning of different power structures in governance arrangements, called for a better order for India, with examples of the history of Independence and India-Pakistan Partition.’

Prof Xuefei Ren, Professor, Sociology and Global Urban Studies, Michigan State University, United States, presented the epitome of Shanghai approach, went on to talk about the relationship between government and scientists, with case studies of ethnography, and gave food for thought on “what makes cities resilient?”, with Sunidhi ma’am’s question of “what makes cities vulnerable?”.

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Prof Tathagata Chatterjee, Professor, Urban Planning and Governance, Xavier University, Bhubaneswar spoke of Chinese management, collective action, and the two-dimensional problems: spatial (big cities as epicenters) and flow (movement of people). He also lauded the sterling approach of embeddedness of state, communities rising up, and how technology is important, but it’s the human factors that play out as solutions.

Dr Arjun Kumar, Director of IMPRI, China-India Visiting Scholars fellow, Ashoka University, also talked about Belt and Road Initiative, with examples from India, like Ease of Doing Business, Ease of Living indices, New Delhi Smart Cities Ltd., and other metrics of good governance, appreciated the Party’s commitment vis-à-vis other nations and called for behavioural change among masses.

Acknowledgement: Priyanshi Arora is a research intern at IMPRI.

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