China has actively worked with the WHO to fight the coronavirus. Now, other countries should too

  • Tang Bei

    In my opinion, the key lies in supporting and enhancing the WHO’s central role in international disease prevention and control.

    First, China has fulfilled its obligations under the International Health Regulations. Wuhan reported a cluster of cases of a mysterious disease on 

    December 31, which was also when the WHO’s China office was informed. Researchers in China isolated the novel coronavirus on January 7 and released its 

    genome sequence days later, laying the foundation for collaborative scientific research into the disease around the world.

    In addition, China invited WHO experts to visit five cities, including Wuhan, to investigate the situation and conduct research into how to check the spread of Covid-19 globally. China’s transparency is in stark contrast to some countries’ slowness to share case data.

    Second, China has further strengthened the WHO’s role as an institution of global cooperation. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director general, said Chinese data had been “very important in enabling WHO to provide good evidence-based advice to countries”.

    China also contributed to the epidemiological findings disclosed in the WHO experts’ report. And it is worth mentioning that the State Council Information Office held a press conference in English on March 4, where frontline medical experts spoke about treating Covid-19.

    Third, China’s prevention and control measures offer useful lessons for the WHO as it makes policy suggestions. The effectiveness of the measures taken by the Chinese government has been amply demonstrated, as infections slow and some schools reopen. Of course, this does not mean that all other countries should do a simple copy and paste, and impose lockdowns or aggressive quarantine measures.

    However, some principles and lessons can be drawn. Political commitment is essential if such a large-scale public health challenge is to be addressed. Holding out the false hope that one can keep oneself aloof and safe from the epidemic will just jeopardise global efforts to combat the virus.

    Fortunately, many countries are mobilising to tackle the threat. In its updated recommendations for international travel, the WHO said effective control measures included “active surveillance for the early detection and isolation of cases” and recommended that travellers"self-monitor for symptoms for 14 days". 

    Admittedly, as the coronavirus spreads past China’s borders, the situation has become more complicated. From my perspective, three efforts can be made to promote international cooperation within the WHO framework.

    First and foremost, it is vital to continue to share data and experience with the WHO, especially on how to prevent and manage imported cases. Dozens of imported cases have been reported in China. Given the large number of Chinese people living and travelling abroad, this is not surprising.

    China should also improve border surveillance under the WHO’s latest guidance, and continue to take part in discussions on a global strategy to combat Covid-19. After all, in an age of globalisation, cooperation works the best and costs the least.

    Second, China can further activate multilateral health cooperation with neighbouring countries to support the WHO’s global efforts. China has rich experience and a solid foundation in regional health cooperation. For example, China and its neighbours along the Mekong River have cooperated in cross-border prevention and control of diseases including malaria and dengue fever for years.

    Health cooperation has also been woven into multilateral organisations such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum. The Belt and Road Initiative includes a “Health Silk Road”, through which countries that have signed up for the global trade plan can enhance health cooperation. For the fight against Covid-19, China has pledged to work closely with Asean.

    Third, Chinese enterprises can contribute via technical innovation. For example, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Chinese refrigeration company Aucma was licensed to build coolers that could keep vaccines cold in places with limited electricity. This made it possible to store vaccines in the African heat.

    In response to Covid-19, Chinese companies have deployed technologies to eliminate human contact and prevent the spread of the virus: using autonomous vehicles to deliver goods to medical workers, robots to disinfect hospitals and drones to conduct thermal scans of huge crowds. If properly developed, these technologies could help improve the public health systems of many developing countries.

    In the face of this global health challenge, the world needs a strong and effective WHO more than ever. Indifference, unilateralism or political attacks would only erode the cornerstone of international cooperation. China has taken the lead in supporting the WHO and should continue to make important contributions.

    And the international community needs to realise the truth of what the WHO argued as long ago as 2007, when it said in a report that “collective international public health action can build a safer future for humanity”. Countries should see they are in the same boat, and should help each other stay afloat.

    Tang Bei is Associate Professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, at Shanghai International Studies University, and a China Forum expert

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