A difficult question is whether we can achieve similar results(as China) without the heavy-handed top-down control and significant incursions into individual liberty and freedom as we have seen in the City Y.
I keep in daily contact with my family by means of the Chinese social media platform WeChat. As a result I’ve received regular updates on how their lives have been affected by Covid-19 — something that is not only of great personal interest to me, but is also particularly revealing about what ordinary people in China have had to be prepared to endure as a consequence of the Chinese government’s interventions in response to the coronavirus crisis.
My family lives in a third-tier, prefecture-level city in an inland province in eastern China. The province (I’ll call it “Province X”) shares a border with Hubei Province, whose capital, Wuhan, has been the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak in China. The population of my home city (“City Y”) is around 3.4 million — considerably smaller than Sydney, whose population now exceeds 5 million.
In what follows, I share a detailed chronology of how the local government in City Y acted following the lockdown of Wuhan on 22 January 2020, and how this affected my family.
23 January: The first case of Covid-19 is identified in City Y.
24 January: Police are ordered to set up checkpoints in public places, coordinate with hospitals and clinics, and be on stand-by to crack down on any attempts at price-gouging, disorderly behaviour in hospitals and the trading of wild animals.
25 January: Local health authorities issue edicts banning all public gatherings, including weddings and funerals, and closing all recreational spaces — cinemas, recreational centres, KTVs (karaoke television venues), internet cafés, public swimming pools, libraries, museums, galleries and wet markets. Restaurants and hotels are required to offer a full refund for all bookings. Residents are required to wear masks when out and about, and are strongly urged to practise “social distancing” — including cancelling social visits, gatherings and family reunions.
26 January: City Y identifies its second case of Covid-19. Hotlines are set up so that residents can report any attempts to hide cases of infection or lie about their own or others’ health, and to notify authorities of any failures to report cases.
27 January: City Y confirms its third case of Covid-19. The city closes all public parks. Residents are told that schools, universities, colleges and other educational institutions, which are still on winter vacations, will not resume until further notice, and the employees’ Chinese New Year holiday leave is extended indefinitely.
28 January: Passengers are required to wear masks before boarding public transport. Anyone who insists on travelling without a mask may be reported to the police. Inter-city coaches linking City Y to surrounding townships are shut down.
31 January: City Y’s total confirmed cases reaches 15. Following orders from the provincial government, the City Y bans taxis and buses, and closes all major highways.
1 February: City Y reports 16 confirmed cases of Covid-19. All workplaces and individuals are banned from publishing information that may disclose the identity and personal information of individual citizens infected with the virus.
2 February: City Y reports 26 confirmed cases. All major roads are now closed off, and private cars prohibited on public roads.
3 February: The total number of confirmed cases reaches 43. All residential gated communities are now in lockdown, permitting only one person from each household to leave the residential compound every second day.
6 February: Confirmed cases now total 88. More specific orders about residential lockdown are issued. If any gated residential community has one confirmed case of Covid-19, then the section of the building in which the infected resident lives will be completely locked down, meaning that no one is permitted to leave or enter that section. If there are two confirmed cases, then the entire building will be cordoned off. If there are three or more, then the entire gated community will be locked down. The government arranges to deliver parcels of food to each household for those neighbourhoods which are cordoned off.
7 February: The number of confirmed cases reaches 99. Police issue detailed edicts aiming to crack down on 18 types of offence, including refusal to wear a mask in public places, refusal to disclose information to authorities about one’s movements when suspected of infection, and spreading rumours and fake news on social media about Covid-19 or the government’s response to it.
9 February: Confirmed cases reach 126 and two deaths from Covid-19 are recorded in City Y. Major hospitals stop providing non-emergency services.
10 February: There are now 134 confirmed cases in City Y. Residents are issued with entry tickets that allow only one member from each household to enter and leave the gated community. No outsiders are allowed in, unless they are medical or ambulance staff attending to patients.
13 February: Confirmed cases now reach 146, and the daily number of new cases begins to fall.
19 February: The last day for City Y to report new cases — from this day up to the time of writing, no more cases have been identified. The total number of Covid-19 cases recorded for City Y is 160.
2 March: After an extended school holiday, City Y’s 600,000 school children are sent back to school, albeit online. Hospitals also resume normal services.
4 March: By this day, City Y has discharged all patients from hospitals. The total number of deaths from the virus in City Y was 5.
A personal perspective
The number of new cases each day was reported in the local government’s WeChat subscription account, which also publicised those neighbourhoods and gated communities that had new cases. The account continues to provide updates on any new rules and enforcements. Other forms of informing the public included public notices, public awareness posters in the streets, and daily reminders and announcements by megaphone within the neighbourhood.
My family has responded to these measures with calm. As my 86-year-old father said, “There’s no reason to panic; all we have to do is follow orders, and do the right thing.” Well before the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak, my mother, 83, had suffered a serious stroke and had been living as a permanent resident in a hospital specialising in post-stroke convalescence. However, three days before the Chinese New Year, on 22 January, my family was told that all non-emergency patients would have to go home — the hospital had been instructed by the local government to make beds available in the likelihood that there would be a surge in the number of Covid-19 patients.
Being wheel-chair bound, my mother could not return to her own apartment, which is on the second level of a low-rise apartment building without a lift. As a result, she is now living with my brother and his wife in a high-rise building that is equipped with lifts. But their apartment is not big enough to accommodate four people so my father continues to live at his own home. Each day for about a week at the end of January, my father would take a taxi or bus to visit his family, and would stay to share the evening meal with them, before my brother drove him home.
My brother and sister-in-law have a daughter who is married with a toddler, and they live in a nearby city nearby — less than an hour away on the fast train. The family had been looking forward to seeing them at their usual family Chinese New Year gathering. But as Chinese New Year approached, they reluctantly decided that travel was no longer wise. For the first time, their New Year’s Eve dinner went ahead involving only the City Y branch of the family.
Soon after that, my brother was no longer permitted to use his car to chauffeur my father home. The only form of transport allowed on the road was now pushbikes, including shared bikes. But this wasn’t an option for my elderly father. So, starting from the end of January, he has been virtually confined to his own apartment. He has not seen my mother in person for quite a few weeks, even though the distance that separates them is relatively walkable, taking about half an hour for a fit and younger person. He does call her each morning, and has video-chats with her on WeChat each afternoon. I’ve also been making a point of talking to my father for at least half an hour each evening by WeChat, just to help him have a sense of being connected to the outside world. He has been coping surprisingly well, and is quite philosophical about this: “I’m not the only one being inconvenienced. The whole nation is going through the same thing.”
In the meantime, my father’s apartment, which, like most urban residents in China, is located in a gated community, has been required to close all its gates except one, which allows only pedestrians and pushbikes to come and go, not cars. Moreover, each time someone wants to leave or return, they are issued with an exit or entry ticket and have their temperature tested. A temperature check is also compulsory each time you enter a supermarket or shop. I’ve been told that even now, some gated communities require residents to have their temperature tested, to prove their residency by swiping their bar code with their phones and to wear a mask. For those older apartments which do not have gates, temporary barricades, manned around the clock by authorised staff, have been put up to limit movement.
Every second day, my sister-in-law calls my father to say she’ll be coming to deliver some food and his daily medications, and so he goes to meet her at the now-locked gate nearest to his building, where she hands the goods over the gate to him. She travels there each day by pushbike — apparently, shared bikes remain popular in City Y, but they now cost a few more yuan for each ride, to defray the additional cost of being regularly and thoroughly sanitised between hires.
My family has taken to buying lots of food online, including fresh produce such as meat and fresh vegetables. And, of course, it goes without saying that each time they leave their apartment, including just going outside to put a garbage bag in the bin, they unfailingly wear a mask. My family has also reduced their meals to two a day, plus snacks, simply because their physical movement has been significantly curtailed and they don’t need as much fuel as usual.
Surprisingly, daily grocery supplies have not been interrupted. There has been no panic-buying or price-gouging.
Last week, my father left his gated community for the first time in more than a month to have a haircut in a small hole-in-the-wall barber near his apartment. The haircut took just a few minutes, with both the barber and my father wearing masks. But before he left the barber, he had to leave his name, address and contact number — the barber said that they had been requested by the government to do this, in case patrons needed to be contacted later in relation to possible Covid-19 exposure. My father said that he didn’t mind doing this, and that he understood why it had to be done.
In an authoritarian society with one-party rule, a large part of the political legitimacy of the government comes from its capacity to ensure social stability at whatever cost — which, in this case, means containing the spread of Covid-19. The economy can afford to be given second priority, at least for the time being. There have been no quibbles in response to the fact that significant national resources were deployed to Hubei Province and Wuhan City for months. With the government willing to adopt such extreme measures, citizens felt no need to panic.
Over the past few weeks of observing the Australian government’s response to the virus, I was frequently reminded of a question posed by Stan Grant: “What if it turns out that an authoritarian regime is better-equipped to handle the coronavirus emergency than liberal democracies?” This proves to be a difficult question. An equally difficult question is whether we can achieve similar results without the heavy-handed top-down control and significant incursions into individual liberty and freedom as we have seen in the City Y.
Wanning Sun is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Technology Sydney.