How China Beat Coronavirus Over the Last Six Months

September 19 marks six months since China reported no new local infections following the outbreak of the coronavirus that has since infected tens of millions of people worldwide and killed almost one million.

On March 19, China's National Health Commission announced that the 34 new cases it had to report were all from overseas. This milestone indicated it had succeeded in controlling the virus, which was first recognized in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei province, late last year.

After 1,451 coronavirus cases were recorded on February 22, China has not reported more than 1,000 diagnoses per day since. Figures are regularly just in the double digits. On 17 September, for instance, 41 people were diagnosed with the coronavirus. In contrast, India, the country with the second highest incidence after the U.S., had 97,894 cases that day.

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A graph showing reported coronavirus cases in China between January 23 and September 17, 2020. The large spike in February was a day when over 15,000 cases were reported. Johns Hopkins University

Of the over 30.2 million global coronavirus cases and 946,685 deaths, mainland China accounts for 90,297 and 4,737. This, from a population of over 1.4 billion.

In late March, China was overtaken by the U.S. as the country with the most confirmed cases. It has not been among the worst affected countries for most of the pandemic.

How did China beat the coronavirus when it has ravaged other countries?

After initially underreporting the emergence of the new respiratory virus, China took unprecedented measures to stop the virus from spreading, including banning 760 million people from leaving their homes, building hospitals in days, and carrying out widespread testing and contact tracing.

On January 23, China set its public health threat to its highest possible level ordering all cities to close their schools, isolating suspected and confirmed patients, disseminating information about the disease, and giving migrants health checks. The lockdown also saw entertainment venues close, public gatherings banned in 220 cities, intra-city transport halted in 136 cities, and travel within 219.

The world watched as reports emerged from Wuhan—population 11 million—of hospitals being flooded with coronavirus patients and its streets akin to a ghost town.

China has since re-opened its economy. Last month, images of a pool party in Wuhan, where revellers lounged in dinghys, felt a world away from what other countries, including the U.S., India, and Brazil, faced as they attempted to control their outbreaks.

Wuhan wave.

People watch a performance as they cool off in a swimming pool in Wuhan, China

— AFP News Agency (@AFP) August 17, 2020

According to a study published in the journal Science in April, the tough measures taken by China in the first 50 days of the COVID-19 pandemic likely prevented 700,000 cases. Co-author Christopher Dye, visiting professor of zoology and visiting fellow at the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, said in a statement at the time: "China's control measures appear to have worked by successfully breaking the chain of transmission—preventing contact between infectious and susceptible people."

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the U.K.'s SOAS University of London, told Newsweek: "China successfully contained the virus by imposing the strictest of lockdowns and keeping the lockdown going until it reduced local transmission to practically zero. It then enforced effective local lockdowns when new cases arose, and nearly cut itself off from foreign visitors for a very long time." The outbreak is currently under control, he said.

Shenglan Tang, professor of medicine and global health at Duke University in North Carolina, told Newsweek: "People's lives have gradually restored to normal in most places, though mask-wearing is still strongly recommended in public places."

In comparison with other countries, such as the U.S. and U.K., "the government of China has done really a good job in controlling the pandemic since late January," Tang said. While the government there delayed reporting coronavirus cases for two to three weeks, many countries did not take effective measures to control the spread of the disease for far longer over the past nine months, he said. "Another important success factor for China is that Chinese people have strong confidence in [their] government and are willing to cooperate with what the government and experts recommended."

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Paramilitary police officers wear face masks march in front of the entrance of the Forbidden City in Beijing on May 19, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

Asked whether we can trust the case and death counts coming out of China, Tsang said no. "But that is beside the point. I have little doubt that China's statistics on COVID-19 cases and death are unreliable and represent underrepointing, but in the overall scheme of things, with the kind of numbers in countries like the U.S., India or Brazil being what they are, Chinese statistics still give a rough idea of how China managed the virus over time." Newsweek has contacted the National Health Commission of China for comment.

But all this progress comes at a cost.

Tsang said China was partly able to implement measures due to its authoritarian society. No democracy in Europe or America managed to contain the virus, he said. "Other democracies, notably Taiwan and New Zealand adopted alternative approaches that are also successful," said Tsang.

"The lockdown was stringently enforced in China, and some people who attempted to break it had the metal doors to their apartments welded," he said. "So, yes, it was very effective but not at a price that people in democracies would be willing to pay."

Despite its achievements, China is not out of the woods as the world continues to navigate unchartered territory with the new virus. Both Tang and Tsang said they could not predict if a second wave would hit.

Huaiyu Tian, associate professor of epidemiology at Beijing Normal University and co-author of the Science study, commented in a statement in April: "Given the small fraction of the Chinese population that has been infected, a much larger number of people remains at risk of COVID-19. We are acutely aware that resident or imported infections could lead to a resurgence of transmission."