Global leader or astute negotiator: China helps tackle Covid-19

By: Sarada Subhash
The city of Wuhan, the sprawling capital of Hubei province in Central China, is now infamous as the epicentre of the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus disease--Covid-19. What was reported in the initial days of December 2019, as an ‘outbreak of pneumonia of unknown cause’, restricted to the city of Wuhan, soon turned out to be a horrifying global calamity, spiralling out of control and spreading all across the globe. As China emerges successful in reducing the number of Covid-19 cases in their country, this article attempts to analyse whether there is a possibility that China could lead the way in the global efforts to contain the deadly Covid-19. This article also attempts to analyse whether other nations could benefit from cooperating with China or would it pave the way for China’s global supremacy.

There is sufficient anger and criticisms being levelled at China for being the cause of the now widespread dreaded Covid-19. Influential leaders such as Donald Trump, President of the United States, blatantly refusing to adhere to the widely used terminology Covid-19, instead dubbing it as the ‘Chinese virus’ and outrightly blaming China for the global pandemic, is but one example to represent the resentment towards China (Beavers 2020). Amidst the expected rise in the international criticisms and surprising rise of support (Iran) towards China, it becomes pertinent to understand the actions undertaken by China, within their nation as well as across the globe to tackle Covid-19. This is all the more important when, as said before, the Covid-19 cases in China are much lower than that being tackled by the international community. The strategies and technologies adopted by China against Covid-19 could prove to be a useful template for other countries struggling to control the virus.

Containing the Covid-19 back home

China’s domestic policy towards containment of Covid-19 has attracted criticisms internally and internationally. China has resorted to containment measures like expansive surveillance, isolation, social distancing, quarantine, lockdown and community containment, allegedly in the most autocratic and aggressive of ways. There are serious concerns amongst the international community with regards to the severity of the human rights violation and curtailment of civil rights liberties across China, in the wake of Covid-19 control measures adopted by the Chinese government. 

In the midst of these controversies, the number of Covid-19 cases in China reduced considerably. The reasons behind dwindling cases are not just the alleged aggressive containment measures but also the deployment of China’s technological expertise and capabilities to its full might and potential. Let us now look at some of the scientific and technical methods adopted by China in their fight against Covid-19.

It is interesting to note that it just took about a month for China to identify the genome of Covid-19. This is in stark contrast to a year’s time China took to decode the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus that broke out in 2002, signalling China’s growing scientific and technological capabilities. In addition to the much-needed identification of the genome pattern of Covid-19 (for future vaccine development), China is also resorting to robotics to reduce human involvement, the subsequent human-to-human transmissions resulting in the spread of Covid-19. Robots are being deployed at hospitals and restaurants in China for preparing meals, delivering food, dispensing hand sanitisers and also for diagnostics and carrying out thermal imaging (Chaturvedi 2020). China is also increasingly deploying drones for the transportation of the samples of patients and medical equipment, thus reducing to a great extent the time and the labour, which would otherwise have been involved in the process of identification and treatment of the carriers of Covid-19 (Chaturvedi 2020).

In another revealing development, China’s artificial intelligence (AI) companies SenseTime and Hanwang Technology, have made claims that they have developed a ‘facial recognition product that incorporates thermal imaging cameras to help spot people with elevated temperatures’ and ‘with the addition of a mask algorithm, it can also detect those who are not wearing masks in public places’ (Li 2020). This would again reduce the necessity of having to employ humans and reduce the human-to-human transmissions of Covid-19. China is also using Big Data as an effective technology for the management of the movement of their citizens, detection of the virus and subsequently isolating the identified carriers at the earliest (Sakhuja 2020). The deployment of the facial recognition technology and Big Data has nonetheless triggered a controversy claiming it could lead to increased violation of privacy by the Chinese government (Li 2020). 

Notwithstanding the criticisms, China is proactively exploring different ways to utilise AI to tackle Covid-19. For example, the Chinese internet giant Baidu ‘has made its Linearfold algorithm available to scientific and medical teams fighting the outbreak’ (technologyreview 2020). The AI scientists in Baidu have used Linearfold algorithm to “predict the secondary structure prediction for the Covid-19 RNA sequence, reducing overall analysis time from 55 minutes to 27 seconds, meaning it is 120 times faster” (ibid.). Haifeng Wang, CTO of Baidu expressed hope that this algorithm would help ‘improve the speed of virus research and vaccine development’ (ibid.). 

Another useful development in tackling the spread of Covid-19 comes from China’s technology giants, Alibaba and Tencent. They have developed a software based on a colour code (green, yellow or red) to enable the tracking of people. Each colour code would be designated to “people based on travel and medical history and determines if a person should be quarantined or allowed in public spaces” (Sakhuja 2020). Chinese government has made it mandatory for their citizens to log on to Jack Ma’s Alipay–the citizens only being allowed to access the public spaces if they are coded ‘green’ by Alipay (Sakhuja 2020). 

Thus, it can be understood that in addition to the aggressive containment measures China is also relying simultaneously on advanced scientific knowledge and technological expertise to ensure maximum reduction and possible eradication of Covid-19 from their country.

China’s support for the international community 

Whether or not China is the culprit in the Covid-19 pandemic, the past few weeks have seen the nation proactively assisting other countries in controlling the deadly virus. From sending across the much-needed assistance to France and Italy in the form of medical practitioners, medical equipment and masks, to providing Covid-19 testing kits to Cambodia, China is stepping up as a critical humanitarian support system in this global health crisis (Kuo 2020). 

Wang Yi, China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister has pledged support to Spain in the form of essential medical supplies and ‘open commercial channels for the country to import urgently needed personal protective equipment and medical materials’, as this European country is reeling under the brunt of Covid-19 (cgtn 2020). Comforting the Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez, ‘sunshine comes after the storm’, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to increase the cooperation with Spain during the time of crises and even post-crisis (Kuo 2020). Iran too is receiving active aid and assistance not just from the Chinese government but also from the business community of China (Carvalho 2020). The humanitarian assistance and support from China is crucial for Iran because of the complex situation faced by the country post Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal. 

China has also decided to extend aid and support to 19 countries which has helped China during the Covid-19 outbreak in the country (Varma 2020). China also acknowledged the help and support they received from India during the outbreak. China also stated they are willing to provide assistance and ‘share its experience’ with India as to how to control Covid-19 spread within the country (Varma 2020).

In addition to the assistance and help from the Chinese government, Chinese billionaires like Jack ma, co-founder of Alibaba are stepping up their philanthropic activities by sending ‘across doctors and medical supplies to FranceSpain, ItalyBelgiumIranIraqthe Philippines, and the United States’ (Penney 2020).

Way forward  

It is too early to predict the potential outcomes and deeper political agendas (if any) behind this humanitarian assistance by China to the world. It is also unclear whether these generosities are in fact veiled efforts by China to project themselves as a ‘global leader’. The pressing question though is–are the countries around the globe (barring few developed nations like the US, the UK) in a position to refrain themselves from seeking China’s assistance, both economically and technologically, at this hour of a deep crisis? Especially, when Covid-19  has swept through 126 countries, infected close to 4,23,724 people worldwide, and is responsible for more than 18,923 deaths, escalating the health emergency crisis to alarming proportions across the globe as on March 25, 2020 (worldometer 2020).

In addition to the looming humanitarian crisis, is the impending economic crisis that is bound to arise due to Covid-19, which needs immediate attention. As rightly pointed out by Brahma Chellaney, beyond the unfortunate and disastrous health implications, “the pandemic has disrupted normal trade and travel, forced many school closures, roiled the international financial system and sunk global stock markets” (Chellaney 2020). Chellaney also warns the world about a possible global recession, especially with the plunging oil prices due to the spread of Covid-19. 

The international community perhaps has little choice but to seek and accept China’s help at this moment, particularly since China has already controlled the disease. This is all the more important because of the enormous human cost involved, the inability of the global community to invent a vaccine against Covid-19 and the spiralling effect of the disease spreading/engulfing the world like a global wildfire. The need of the hour is proactive global cooperation and collaboration amongst countries on all fronts- social, economic and scientific. If this proactiveness requires the aid of the experienced and technologically advanced China, then it has to be done because as Aditya Chaturvedi (Chaturvedi 2020) sums up, Covid-19 ‘ is an unanticipated disaster of epic proportions that has exposed human fragility in an interconnected world’.


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The author is assistant researcher, Geography and You, New Delhi. 


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