Coronavirus and Chinese healthcare system, interview with prof. Brombal

“The world must wake up and consider this this virus as public enemy number one”.
This warning comes straight from the World Health Organization, who are not mincing their words when alerting the population about the severity of the Coronavirus epidemic - new code name: Covid-19, the virus that infected over 70.000 people and caused more than two thousand deaths.
We talked about it with Daniele Brombal, Ca’ Foscari professor of Chinese Language, Contemporary Chinese Society and Politics and Society in Contemporary China. 

- China is currently trying to control the spread of the coronavirus epidemic, how are they doing that? Are there any analogies or differences with the SARS crisis? 

China has taken some very strict measures when it comes to quarantining and restricting the circulation of people. These measures have been implemented on the basis of three key elements: the possibility of the virus being easily spread, the lack of effective medication and the delayed response of the authorities. This last issue is a common factor in both the current epidemic and SARS. Despite time being of the essence, on both occasions authorities initially interfered with the circulation of information that could have potentially helped in containing the virus.

- You’ve also authored a book where you analyzed the reformation of the Chinese health system. What have been the biggest transformations of this system and what is the situation today?

China is living proof of how the market is incapable of taking care of people’s health concerns with equality. In the 80’s, economic reforms and decollectivization undermined the government funding of basic health services and welfare. At the same time, hospitals became financially independent and were encouraged to carry out unnecessary diagnostic procedures and treatments.
This de facto privatization made it very hard for the general population to access hospital care and people got increasingly poorer because of illness, especially in the countryside. The authorities became aware of the issue  two decades later, when they also started to rethink the general access to social rights. SARS managed to shine a light on healthcare, accelerating the reform. Almost twenty years later, the result is a national healthcare system that can offer coverage for medical expenses to almost every person in the country. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of this medical insurance is not enough to avoid catastrophic expenses and impoverishment cases due to illness, two very common situations. At the same time, the basic healthcare system is still lacking. Finally, from a strictly social point of view, physician-patient relationships can still be hostile, a habit passed on from the time in which doctors were seen as working for personal profit rather than the common good. 

- How did the Chinese people react?

I believe we observed two things: on one hand, the great resilience of the Chinese people and the ability to see individual suffering as a collective problem. On the other hand, the community was also outraged at how those who first spoke out on the virus were treated by the authorities, especially in the case of doctor Lin Wenliang. His death sparked strong criticism from both society and media, prompting a discussion on topics such as transparency and responsibility as duties of the State. I don’t think the indignation has necessarily resulted in harsh criticism on the legitimacy of the Party, but I wouldn’t rule that out yet - it wouldn’t be the first time in Chinese history.

- Do you think there will be any repercussion from an international standpoint, for instance in the relations between Chinese institutions and other countries? 

Chinese authorities have reacted harshly to the temporary block of direct flights to Italy, as have those who fear the economic repercussions on our country. WHO officials have deemed the flight restrictions excessive. Truth be told, the same scientific evidence used to criticize the decision doesn’t exactly rule out the usefulness of these actions when it comes to slowing down the epidemic.The precautionary measures adopted by our Ministry of Health obtained the approval of many doctors and experts: without any effective medication and when facing a virus that could potentially prove highly contagious, restricting the movement of people is one of the only feasible ways to slow down the spread of the epidemic. Fighting the virus should be a global responsibility which requires us to use our scientific, cultural and ethical resources for the common good. Those same resources we should tap into to fight the episodes of blatant racism towards Asian people in Italy. We know the virus of racism way too well, nonetheless we often think of ourselves as “healthy carriers” of this disease. The crisis we’re experiencing should push us to reconsider the diagnosis: the symptoms are right before our eyes.