As Europe reels under second wave of coronavirus, does Chinese response hold lessons for the world?

European authorities are facing the dilemma of calibrating a response that meets the urgent health care requirements and at the same time appeases a public increasingly experiencing fatigue about COVID-19 restrictions

FP Staff October 17, 2020 08:38:46 IST
As Europe reels under second wave of coronavirus, does Chinese response hold lessons for the world?

Representaional image. AP

Europe’s second wave of coronavirus infections has struck well before the flu season even started, with intensive care wards filling up again and bars shutting down. Making matters worse, authorities say, is a widespread case of "COVID-fatigue."

In contrast, China, where coronavirus was first detected late last year, has largely eradicated the virus domestically and responds with an iron will against imported cases and singular cases of domestic transmission.

The most recent local cluster in the Asian country was detected in the industrial port city of Qingdao, with all of 12 people testing positive for the virus over the last weekend, accounting for China’s first local transmissions in about two months. City officials took immediate action and in just four days, they tested more than 10 million people. On day 5, the city official traced back the origin of the cluster to two dock workers, and the cause of spread to the improper disinfection at the hospital where the duo went for treatment. Before the day ended, two high ranking health officials were put on suspension pending enquiry.

In contrast, European authorities are facing the twin dilemma of calibrating a response that meets the urgent health care requirements and at the same time appeases a public increasingly experiencing fatigue about COVID-19 restrictions.

Is Europe's second wave worse than first?

Record high daily infections in several eastern European countries and sharp rebounds in the hard-hit western Europe have made clear that Europe never really crushed the COVID-19 curve as hoped, after springtime lockdowns.

According to an article in The Conversation, the second wave is apparently worse than the first as level of infections are now higher than in March and April across many countries.

The article points out that France’s daily new cases peaked at 7,500 on 31 March. Its new peak was recorded on Sunday (10 Oct) with 26,675 new cases in the previous 24 hours. Likewise, UK had a peak number of 7,860 daily cases on April 10, which has jumped to a peak of 17,540 on 8 October and is reported to be around 20,000 throughout this week.

Another article in ABC News points out that the French hospital system is on the verge of being overwhelmed and Doctors are warning of hospital bed shortages across Paris as COVID-19 patients clog ICU wards.

According to Spanish news daily El Paisthe country's numbers from this week include 60,000 new cases, while those from the previous week totalled 68,000.

Spain, according to The Associated Press, has confirmed more than 71,000 cases and over 1,800 deaths from coronavirus , and new cases are being reported at more than 1,000 per day recently — hitting a record 3,105 on Friday.

Euronews also points out that the vast majority of countries are declaring more cases each day now than they were during the first wave earlier this year. However, it argues that infection numbers may appear higher simply because the testing capacity have improved since the first wave hit these countries.

How did the situation get so bad?

Almost all news reports covering the European response to the coronavirus agree that a major reason in the massive rise in cases is due to a summertime lull in which people let down their guard about the highly infectious pandemic.

Well after Europe seemed to have largely tamed the virus that proved so lethal last spring, newly confirmed infections are reaching unprecedented levels in Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland. Most of the rest of the continent is seeing similar danger signs.

What is making matters worse that the governments failed to capitalise on the summer reprieve and boost public morale against fighting the virus; neither was the opportunity used to ramp up hospital capacities. The rash behaviour in the face of a receding pandemic may have very well caused the relapse.

The Czech Republic’s “Farewell Covid” party in June, when thousands of Prague residents dined outdoors at a 500-meter long table across the Charles Bridge to celebrate their victory over the virus, seems painfully naive now that the country has the highest per-capita infection rate on the continent, at 398 per 100,000 residents.

"I have to say clearly that the situation is not good," the Czech interior minister, Jan Hamacek, acknowledged last week.

There were instances of Spaniards breaching government guidelines in August — right after a three-month-long lockdown ended — to celebrate San Fermín bull-running fiesta.

Similar reports emerged from UK in mid-September where footage showed Londoners partying on the streets after the 10 pm curfew enforced at the time.

Spain and Italy, which were hard hit in March and April, threw open their doors to vacationers in July and August. Authorities in the Netherlands, for a long time, maintained that masks only provided a false sense of security and actively discouraged public from using them. In face of the second wave, Prime Minister Mark Rutte had to take a u-turn and issue “strong advice” for people to wear masks inside public places, while adding that his government will consider making it a legal obligation, The New York Times  reported.

These standalone instances do not address the root of a second outbreak, but they do point out how public apathy and prevention fatigue has prompted people to act rashly in the face of a global pandemic.

WHO Europe director Dr Hans Kluge acknowledged "It is easy and natural to feel apathetic and demotivated, to experience fatigue." "Although fatigue is measured in different ways, and levels vary per country, it is now estimated to have reached over 60 percent in some cases," he added.

Can Chinese response be a lesson for the rest of the world?

The situation in Europe throws up a stark contrast to China where authorities have successfully managed to arrest flareups locally, even as the country was the first to report the deadly virus. Mass testing and thorough contact tracing, so far, seems to be the secret of their response mechanism.

Authorities did not repeat the drastic nationwide shutdown seen when the virus first spread from Wuhan earlier this year. Instead, they sealed off a limited number of residences and focused on mass testing, eventually screening entire cities where cases were reported since June onwards.

"China has showed they can mobilize the necessary human resources and equipment to do things quickly and at scale... It’s a combination of technological capacity and political will," Japan Times quoted Raina MacIntyre, professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales in Sydney as saying.

Since beating the first wave, Chinese authorities have focused on tracing and rapidly isolating everyone who had potentially been exposed to the virus. AFP, reporting on a previous similar outbreak in Beijing details out the process adopted by authorities.

"Volunteers went door to door across the city, asking residents if they had been in contact with people who may have been exposed to the virus. The tracking, however, took on a dystopian tone at times."

The news agency reported that some residents were ordered to take virus tests after authorities used security camera footage of their car licence plates to determine that they had been near a suspected carrier.

For that reason and others, Beijing is unlikely to serve as a model for other countries dealing with their own second-wave outbreaks.

"Nobody has the resources, capabilities, determination and financial ability, and of course social capital, to do this except China," Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious disease specialist at Singapore's Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, had told AFP at the time.

Then to quickly process millions of samples in a day, the authorities have also been relying on what they call batch testing.

"Chinese authorities are able to test so many people so quickly because of batch testing -- a method that combines 10 samples at a time during testing. If any batch turns out positive, then all 10 people are quarantined and tested individually," reports CNNHowever, another article on the news website quoted a Hong Kong virologist who raised several questions regarding this method.

Dr. Jin Dongyan, a virology professor at the University of Hong Kong, told CNN on Wednesday that the test was "a waste of resources" in many situations because COVID-19 patients are usually identified over a range of time, and hidden cases cannot be identified at once. "This is just a snapshot, so it definitely will miss a lot of positive individuals," he said.

Apart from mass testing, Beijing is speeding up development of vaccines.

The country is also giving its experimental vaccine to citizens which is still in the final stage of clinical testing, and has not been approved. Students studying abroad, high risk population and corona warriors are on the priority list to obtain the vaccine.

If the vaccine works, it might help protect students going to Europe or the United States, where the pandemic is still raging, medical experts said. But they said developers need to make clear it is unproven and keep track of what happens to people who receive it.

If the vaccine doesn’t work, then “this is giving people a false sense of security,” said Sridhar Venkatapuram, a specialist in bioethics at King’s College London’s Global Health Institute.

Western universities are “not protecting their students,” Venkatapuram said. “The company is basically offering its citizens protection going outside of China, which in essence is what any country would ideally be doing.”

The final stage of clinical trials, conducted on larger groups, is used to find any rare side effects and study the effectiveness of a treatment. The first and second stage trials are meant to determine whether a vaccine or treatment is safe.

With inputs from agencies

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