Action 2030 Blog

In prevention still lies the cure: Thoughts on China's fight against COVID-19


A delivery man wearing a face mask runs to deliver food in Beijing, China.
Photo: UNICEF/Andrea Verdelli

As 2021 begins, for the third week in a row, the number of new COVID-19 cases globally has fallen.

But over the past year, we have seen countries flatten the curve only to let their guard down. This complacency even found in nations with advanced healthcare systems, costs lives and devastated livelihoods.

While the prospect of vaccines in 2021 provides hope in defeating this virus, UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s message that ‘there is no panacea in a pandemic’ is clear. Robust public health measures centred around the scientifically proven steps that prevent the spread of COVID-19 remain the most practical response. To its credit, China has set a good example by adopting this approach, as I have witnessed firsthand.

As the incoming UN Resident Coordinator to China, I travelled to Guangzhou from Kenya. In Kenya, I served in the same capacity, and as a UN Country Team in Kenya we joined the Government of Kenya in confronting the pandemic head on.

And in my new role I was not and should not be afforded any preferential treatment on my arrival.

The rules were clear. From the very point of embarking for China, I was subject to the same requirements mandating certificate proof of a negative COVID-19 nucleic acid and IgM antibody test issued no more than two days before travel.

These tests form just part of a comprehensive testing and tracing system found in China, critical to preventing future outbreaks and clusters.

Upon arrival, I noted the rigorous and orderly entry screening practices enforced in China, with officials wearing appropriate personal protective equipment as they checked incoming travellers for signs and symptoms.

Like all passengers arriving in China, officials directed me to a designated hotel to complete a 21-day quarantine period.

These inconveniences are necessary to ensure controlling the spread of COVID-19 at the port of entry. I commend these well-orchestrated actions across a range of government departments to ensure the health and safety of the people in China, regardless of nationality is the highest priority.

I began my work in quarantine on 16 January 2021, preparing for my duties as Resident Coordinator and communicating virtually with new colleagues from the UN system in China. I look forward to greeting them in person and forging partnerships with the Government of China, development partners, academia, the private sector and many new and existing stakeholders.

During this, I have managed my time with a sense of purpose, as I kept in touch with loved ones, catching up on reading, writing, and reflecting. This was my first time in quarantine and a rigorous fitness regimen, combined with breathing exercises and a bit of yoga proved to be critical for keeping my mind and body sharp, positively buoyant and in fine fettle. I even managed to clock an average of 20,000 steps a day.

While I eagerly await the outside world upon the safe completion of this quarantine period on 06 February 2021, I know that the virus is still out there, mutating and turning more aggressive.

Recent COVID-19 outbreaks ahead of the Lunar New Year have alarmed authorities in China, who have responded in kind with proactive and aggressive measures.

Spring travel or ‘Chunyun’ to be with families in this special time has been discouraged in certain municipalities in China, which happens to one of the world’s largest annual migration.

I acknowledge that these responses can place strain on our happiness and well-being, but it is critical that we not lose sight of our goal to defeat the virus.

This task still requires that we do all we can to protect each other. Governments, societies, and individuals everywhere must continue to encourage wearing masks, physically distancing, observing good hygiene etiquette and above all spreading compassion and not the virus.

These actions in unison with strengthening our testing, tracking and isolation systems will ensure our efforts on vaccines are not in vain with their rollout in the coming year.

With simple public health measures informed by science as adopted here in China, the world can slow the virus’s spread, save lives and livelihoods and end the pandemic.

I look forward to joining the UN family in China and we will continue to work in lockstep with the Government of China to fight COVID-19 and advancing universal health coverage.

The article was originally published to Forbes Africa on 5 February 2021.