How China contained virus: There are lessons for India in its centralised planning, local action

The central leadership led by President Xi was quick in acknowledging this effort of the “first line of defence”. It made provisions for the benefit of the workers like subsidies, provision of health equipment, insurance, publicity, and other institutional support.

In his address to the nation on April 20, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made exhortations for the youth to form small committees to ensure adherence to COVID-19 restrictions. He has also put the onus on states to decide on lockdowns and other measures. Thus, the central government has adopted more decentralised decision-making as opposed to the modus operandi adopted during the first wave. While only time will tell if this is the right approach, policymakers can learn from success stories of defeating the virus using local mobilisation.

Comparable to India in terms of population, China was able to control the spread of COVID-19 at a swifter pace. Immense media attention was focused on the initial mishandling by the local government, official secrecy due to the fear of public alarm and political embarrassment, and then the imposition of a very harsh lockdown and other brisk central directives to contain the virus. The epidemic, reminiscent of the 2008 SARS crisis, could have been a significant threat to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Thus, all resources were mobilised by President Xi Jinping to tackle this challenge.

At the grassroots, the most critical role was played by the residential committees (RCs). Though officially not part of the state and defined as institutions of self-governance, these committees are the instruments of the party for effective governance and political control. They are mandated to perform administrative tasks, implement policy, mediate local disputes, and assist government agencies with maintaining public surveillance, health and sanitation, care for the elderly, etc. At the outbreak of the epidemic, after the initial days of confusion and voluntary action by individuals, the RCs soon took charge.

In Wuhan, for example, all 7,148 communities were closed off. Community workers strictly enforced rules of entry and exit. No residents were allowed to leave, and no non-residents were allowed to access the community area other than for essential medical needs or epidemic control operations. Volunteers were assigned shifts at the gates of the communities and checked access passes. They also made calls to residents asking about family members’ health and status, knocked on residents’ doors to conduct regular temperature checks, gather information about travel history, etc. RC workers provided home delivery of daily food necessities to people in self-quarantine and elderly residents, often hauling supplies up steep stairs. Other essential tasks included tracing contact, registering and visiting each individual, placing sick persons under community management, and transferring them to designated medical facilities for quarantine. A large number of youth and college students, often party members, volunteered for the RCs. Such a model was pursued all across the country.

The central leadership led by President Xi was quick in acknowledging this effort of the “first line of defence”. It made provisions for the benefit of the workers like subsidies, provision of health equipment, insurance, publicity, and other institutional support. The picture wasn’t all rosy. There were also reports of shortages of medical supplies and food items. RC members suffered from burnouts, deteriorating physical and mental health, and also dealt with public frustration. Standard procedures of bureaucracy and a lack of training also hampered the response system. But despite challenges, the epidemic has been successfully contained, and images of celebration in Wuhan and elsewhere in China have given much hope to others.

Undoubtedly, the situation in India is much bleaker. Does this above-mentioned “China model” provide any answers to India’s current predicament? Many urban areas have residential associations and local governments that can undertake similar mobilisation as RCs in China. However, this cannot be done without a centralised plan of action, which is the key aspect of this model. There have to be clear channels to pass down resources and authority from central to local organisations. Random citizens’ committees enforcing laws and restrictions will augur conflict and give further leeway to persons with authority. Mobilisation of volunteers for better information dissemination, service delivery, and promoting social distancing can be extremely useful if directed by local governmental organisations to whom higher authority has allocated resources and power.

Ideas of atmanirbharta and leaving states to their own means will only increase policy incoherence and unequal access between states with different fiscal capacities and healthcare infrastructure. Given the nature of this pandemic, the need of the hour is for the central leadership to step up and coordinate policy measures across the country. Most importantly, political masters need to lead by example. Flouting social distancing norms and holding public rallies for the sake of electoral gains does not give confidence to a people reeling under the twin impact of the pandemic and economic devastation.

This article first appeared in the print edition on April 23, 2021 under the title ‘How China contained the virus’. The writer is a graduate student of Chinese politics at Peking University, Beijing.

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