Shanghai to Jalandhar – What can we learn from China?

My experience of surviving through COVID-19

Shanghai to Jalandhar - What can we learn from China?
The empty streets of the financial capital of China - Shanghai during CoViD-19 outbreak | Photo: CNN

I stay and work in Shanghai, China. It was a week before the Chinese New Year Holidays that we first heard about the new virus spreading in Wuhan, China. Considering what could be a rumor or just another flu, we did not pay much heed to the spiraling news. Chinese New Year is the largest annual festival celebrated by the Chinese people. This marks the advent of a new year as per the lunar calendar. This particular new year is of the rat. Each new year in China represents a new animal, thus defining the zodiac sign and the destiny of the people born in that particular year. This time of the year also is a witness to millions of people migrating from one place to another, traveling from their places of work to their hometowns – to be with their families.

This was my first time to experience the Chinese New Year. I was particularly excited about the festivities, a week-long much required holiday and finally some respite from work. The mere thought of doing nothing for one complete week dawned on me and the rising news of a new SARS-like virus somehow tuned down. SARS refers to a disease that surfaced in 2002 in China. It was characterized by symptoms that resemble pneumonia – difficulty in breathing, inflammation of lungs and high fever. It was caused by a virus from the family of Coronavirus, which get their name from the crown-shaped structure present on the surface of the virus. This was another case of a zoonotic virus, i.e. a virus transmitted from animals to humans. Flu causing virus is another common example of Coronavirus.

Hubei’s lockdown and issuance of travel advisories

Three days before the Chinese New Year Holidays began, my company issued a travel advisory, alerting people not to travel to the province named Hubei, particularly to the city Wuhan. What seemed to be a rumor at first, now seemed like a truth that can no further be ignored. Everyone around me was suddenly talking about ‘Binduu’ (the Chinese name of the virus). Chinese stores in no time ran out of masks, sanitizers. Within hours, the news turned into yet another horror story set to Dawn upon the mighty Middle Kingdom (the literal translation of the Chinese name of China). By the afternoon, the news of a complete lockdown of the city of Wuhan came into the picture. The acknowledgment by the authorities in China meant that a really scary time was just staring us in the eye! The communist party in China or the Chinese, in general, are famous for ‘saving the face.’ They would never acknowledge that something is wrong until the situation is really deadly! My anticipation of the Chinese New Year Holidays now turned into a nightmare filled with uncertainty.

Swift action was taken by the authorities in Shanghai

The authorities in Shanghai were swift enough to lock down the entire city and issue advisory via social media platforms and local news channels. The great migration during the Chinese New Year meant that millions had already left Shanghai to travel to their hometowns. The already empty city was further devoid of people roaming the streets because of the swift action shown by the authorities. The good thing was that all the stores selling essential items were open. The authorities in Shanghai tried hard enough to not let stores run out of all essentials. I did not even see panic buying, except for frenzy shopping of masks and sanitizers. Even the popular food delivery apps in China were delivering food, though at a much less frequency.

As the days passed by, the number of reported cases rose. The week-long vacation which once seemed too short was now extended for three more days. Social distancing was something that was practiced by the people of Shanghai since the news of the new virus came out. This was, maybe, because people of China had already experienced something like this about 18 years back when SARS knocked its doors. The strict implementation of laws by the authorities meant that nobody could escape quarantine facilities and anyone recorded with a high body temperature was to be carried away, sometimes forcefully. These are definitely draconian measures, but now when the world is battling with rising cases of CoViD-19 (the name of the disease caused by the novel Coronavirus) China has recorded zero domestic cases – all thanks to these ‘draconian’ measures put in place by the authorities in China.

Effective implementation of strategies by Chinese authorities

Shanghai’s administration gave powers to each housing society to implement its own laws. Each society could now decide if they want to allow visitors to enter their premises. It was mandatory for all societies to check the temperature of its residents. Anyone stepping out of the society was given a travel pass and was to re-enter the building within a stipulated time. Police on the street could ask you the reason for roaming on the streets and you could be sent back home if you were found to roam around without any solid, compelling reason. Wearing a mask was mandatory. You could be detained by the police for disobedience. Simultaneously, China worked on aggregating the data of the confirmed and suspicious cases. This helped residents become aware of the cases around them. All the societies in which confirmed positive cases were found were disinfected and sanitized. The body temperature of the residents of such societies was checked twice daily.

Shanghai also has big cleaning machines installed behind trucks that roam around the cities 24*7. These trucks were now filled with disinfectants and poured this chemical throughout Shanghai. Any place that could have been touched by a human was disinfected. The elevators, the railings, the gates, everything. Elevators even had a toothpick based mechanism, based on which you could simply use a disposable toothpick to press the button. All these things were very minute but were paid heed to by the authorities with people’s cooperation. The most important thing I observed in the Chinese people during this adverse time was their resolve to get over this difficult period. A Chinese colleague of mine even felt sorry for I had to see all this during my first Chinese New Year time in China, such as the feeling of compassion and ownership among the Chinese.

What did China do right?

China was able to fight back only because its efficient authorities were backed by the resolve, awareness, and patience shown by its citizens. During this adverse time, everyone stayed at home. Shanghai, which is a blossoming city, looked no less than a deserted heartland struck down by a natural calamity. Roads were devoid of people, cars, bikes. Grandparents refrained from meeting their grandchildren, not because they no longer loved them, but because they knew the importance of social distancing during such an outbreak. Awareness among people was incredible. People showing symptoms did not run out in the public but went directly to the hospitals with their masks on. This is the resolve we should show in India at this time. Society is the collectivism of people. Every single one has to contribute during adverse times. A virus is a microscopic entity, you would never see it entering your body, so stop everything and stay indoors. We do not need guns to fight this battle, just a resolve to stay indoors, break the chain to breathe healthy into the future.

My experience after landing in India

Comparing this with my experience in India, I could sense that at some point we did not take it seriously. When I say we, I point out at both the general public and the implementing authorities. I landed in India on 23rd February at Amritsar. I was screened at the airport for high body temperature and all my personal details were well noted. No matter if the authorities asked me to or not, I made it a point to practice self-isolation upon landing in India. I did not meet my father with a warm hug usually common in India, I did a Namastey from a safe distance while wearing a mask. I remained in a separate room and used a separate washroom, while only speaking to my father through the phone. What upset me upon landing was no strict implementation of the quarantine procedure for people coming from high-risk countries such as, China. I was not personally averse to the idea of staying in a quarantine facility for 14 days. Honestly, I was mentally well prepared for it.

My society, my war, my responsibility

The next day, two ladies came to my house. They were not medical practitioners but were workers in a nearby government-run dispensary. They noted down my details and advised me to stay indoors. I, being a responsible citizen, was in full obedience. This is where the social responsibility of every citizen must sweep in. I was disheartened to see the news in the media of people avoiding home quarantine and even running away from the isolation wards of hospitals. Who can these people infect? Not only the strangers roaming on the streets but also their own loved ones. This is what we lack as a society – caring for others, being empathetic.

For a few days, the authorities did not follow-up. Though I did not show any symptoms, I wanted solid proof to ensure that I am not affected by CoViD-19. I approached the authorities myself to run swab tests on me. The medical practitioners at Civil hospital, Jalandhar were cooperative and assisted me in going through various tests while ensuring that I maintain a safe distance from other patients. All of these arrangements made me feel proud that if not people, the authorities are at least taking things seriously. Post the test, I stayed inside the isolation ward of the hospital. I would not want to complain about the facilities present there, because I understand I was not on vacation. I cooperated with the authorities for the sake of my family and the strangers around me.

The way forward…

The authorities in India are now taking things seriously. This 21-day lockdown was a much-needed step. Having learned from the missteps of European countries, India has finally put itself under lockdown and isolation. Punjab, UP, and Delhi governments seem to have caught the right nerve of the issue. This lockdown has the potential to both destroy the further spread of the virus and hamper the livelihood of the daily wagers and laborers. These governments have rightly taken the latter into consideration and are providing allowances to such people.

These steps and the current steps being taken by the government of India are welcome. We might be slightly late in imposing such extreme measures, but we are not late enough. The right cooperation by the citizens of India shall curb this novel virus. I am proud to see the Indian government and all the state governments making every effort to curb the further spread of this disease. May we all come out of this soon. This too shall pass.