Coronavirus in Russia: can we “cheat homework” from China?

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Coronavirus in Russia: can we “cheat homework” from China?
Coronavirus in Russia: can we “cheat homework” from China?

In January, a scientific paper was released that predicted that the coronavirus would become a global pandemic and infect hundreds of thousands in Wuhan alone by February. After critically examining this study, we questioned this possibility. Indeed, neither in Wuhan nor in all of China there are hundreds of thousands of cases. However, in the same place we made a glimpse of the forecast "a large number of victims outside the PRC is unlikely." It is already clear that there are more victims outside of China than in the homeland of the outbreak. All this requires “to write off the PRC” recipes for stopping the epidemic. Where exactly did we go wrong and why did China succeed that others did not?

Red square, tourist

That January text of Naked Science also contained correct predictions. For example, due to the small base reproduction number, the virus will not spread with lightning speed like measles.

There were also claims, the correctness of which is still unclear: for example, that the death toll from the coronavirus will be closer to the death toll from SARS or later MERS (thousands of victims), rather than the flu (hundreds of thousands of deaths per year). If we take the situation in China - and we assumed that the epidemic would be mainly there - then everything happened exactly like this.

But there was also an obvious miscalculation among our forecasts: the idea that the epidemic will remain mainly "Chinese" and will not break out to other countries.

Today it is clear that this is not so. In China, the epidemic has almost stopped, but in Europe and the United States it has become a natural disaster. In Italy alone, the number of deaths is many times greater than in the PRC. Given the difference in population, Italians have been hit by the coronavirus dozens of times more than the Chinese. And, apparently, they still have a long way to the end of the epidemic.

A good editor always tells his authors: never make specific predictions. The one who does nothing is not mistaken - so you don’t do it! We need a reputation, and if you make predictions, some of them will definitely not come true - and the end of the reputation.

This is wise advice, but some not very wise authors - including the one who writes these lines - do not follow it. They will write that the United States will not attack Iran, or that Turkey will not fight with Russia, or about the coronavirus. Of course, sooner or later a mistake will happen.

However, to understand the reasons for their mistakes is often more important than success (fortunately, everything is clear with those). What have we left out that allowed Covid-19 to become a global threat?

Reliance on historical experience - excluding the tourist bomb

Genetically, the new coronavirus is close to the causative agent of SARS, the 2002-2003 epidemic. As you know, strict quarantine ended it: new cases of the disease have not been registered for 16 years. We proceeded from the assumption that genetically similar (and relatively similar in "infectiousness") viruses will suffer the same fate - complete death in quarantine.

Alas, this was a miscalculation. Its first reason is that we did not take into account the fact that China has completely changed in 2002-2020. It is no longer a poverty-stricken country where people are ready to work for a cup of rice a day, as it was in the era of "atypical". The Chinese became rich rapidly, and in 2019, 166 million of their tourists traveled abroad. In 2002, there were 16.6 million of them (in the diagram below), ten times less.


Moreover, the peak of trips abroad there falls on the period of the Chinese New Year and the adjacent weeks. For example, during the Chinese New Year - 2019, 6, 3 million people went abroad per day.Naturally, the chances of a large-scale "export" of the epidemic from the PRC in the period adjacent to the new Chinese year 2020 (closer to January 25) were an order of magnitude higher than in 2002, in the era of the SARS epidemic.

Why is it important? Take a closer look at the Chinese tourism map. In Europe, the leading destination visited by the Han people is Italy, with over five million Chinese tourists a year (much more than in the United States). By the way, Wuhan, the epicenter of the Covid-19 epidemic, is one of the top ten cities in China, leading in terms of the number of tourists visiting Europe.

In addition, 87% of Chinese travelers who visited the EU in the first half of 2019 are over 50 years old. Surely there was something similar in 2020. That is, the tourists were exactly those among whom the coronavirus is easiest to spread. Recall: 90% of those infected by them are over 30 years old, half are over 50.

On January 24, a note was published in the Chinese press with a characteristic headline: "Italy - a magnet for Chinese tourists in 2020". The article reported:

"The preferred destinations for Chinese tourists are Lombardy, with its capital in Milan, and Lazio (the center of the country)."

And it was Lombardy that became the center of the epidemic in Italy. Recall: On January 24, 2020, the outbreak of the coronavirus was already a well-known fact. Despite this, the Italian tour operators, according to the note, sincerely, like children, rejoiced at the surge in Chinese tourism in their country and believed that this year the Chinese would set a new record for visiting Italy.

Moreover, on January 21, the Chinese Minister of Culture and Tourism officially inaugurated the Sino-Italian Year in Rome, what do you think? True, culture and tourism - expressing the hope that this year will bring Italy a record number of visitors from his country.


Let us recall the chronology: the Chinese authorities notified WHO about the epidemic of the new coronavirus as early as December 31. 22 days before the event, where representatives of the Chinese and Italian authorities vied with each other to admire the prospects for the growth of Han tourism in Italy. As of January 21, China has already identified half a thousand infected.

But all this - despite the widespread coverage in the press - did not even slow the Italians. They banned the arrival of new Chinese tourists only on January 31, when they identified among them infected with coronavirus in their country.

Bottom line: a tenfold increase in the number of Chinese tourists, together with some frivolity of the authorities of the most popular European country among them, made it possible that the epidemic of 2002-2003 did not prepare us for what. The massive transfer of the outbreak outside Asia - to places where there have been no large epidemics of their own of similar in danger for a long time. In addition, as we noted earlier, Italy is also the “oldest” country in Europe, with a record high median age.

And since not only the Chinese go there - the Germans, for example, visit Italy ten times more often than the citizens of the PRC - it was not so easy to avoid the spread of secondary waves of the epidemic to other European states.

Why didn't we factor in the explosive growth of Chinese tourism? Obviously, the inertia of thinking worked. The same one that gave rise to the legend in social networks that the coronavirus was allegedly brought to Northern Italy by Chinese workers who were brought there so that they could sew something.

It is not hard to guess that there were never five million or even 50 thousand Chinese workers in Italy a year. Therefore, it is unlikely that they are to blame, and not the crowds of millions of tourists. But the habit of perceiving the Chinese as beggars cannot be easily forgotten. After all, we were born and raised in the times of poor China, and it is psychologically difficult to completely abandon this cliché well entrenched in our heads.

Expectation of a quick reaction from the Western authorities: the second unjustified calculation

We are used to thinking of the West as a place where states are relatively reasonably organized.One can be skeptical about the economic or cultural processes going on there, but one cannot ignore the fact: in general, there is a lot of order there, any visitor notices this. In terms of economics and overall life expectancy, the countries of the EU and the United States are noticeably ahead of both us and China. This raises the expectation that Western medicine cannot perform worse than Chinese medicine during the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic.

This thought was our one hundred percent failure, which did not come true at all. It seems that it is one thing to organize something long-established - for example, a market economy, but quite another - a competent reaction to something new that the Western world has not encountered before. The West has not known fundamentally new diseases for the past decades of pandemics. Apparently, therefore, today the reaction of most of his countries to the coronavirus is difficult to describe otherwise as inadequate.

I must say that a similar mistake - the assumption that the West will not be able to respond to the threat worse than China - has been made by many (although this does not justify us). In February, the American publication Foreign Policy managed to publish an article about the coronavirus "How Chinese incompetence has put the whole world at risk." Then, many Western media mercilessly criticized Beijing's response to the epidemic, calling it belated.

However, such an opinion is forgivable to journalists from the USA or the EU: they generally always proceed from the fact that their model of society is the best possible, and the Chinese one is less effective simply because it clearly differs from the Western one, moreover, in many parameters. For an observer from Russia, this mistake is unforgivable - and we admit it, apologizing to the readers.

What exactly China did and what the West did not do: "write off Henan's homework"

As we have already noted, the Western press initially believed that China was acting too slowly and inadequately. The Financial Times wrote an article within the framework of this idea: "Xi Jinping faced Chinese Chernobyl." The publication understood Chernobyl as a catastrophe demonstrating the ineffectiveness of authoritarian authorities, similar to the well-known events in the USSR in 1986.

In some ways, the Financial Times are right: according to the WHO, the total number of victims of Chernobyl was four thousand people, that is, in China, the coronavirus killed almost as many as the Chernobyl accident killed in the Soviet Union.


But there was also a major mistake in the reaction of the foreign media. They rated the extremely quick response as belated, and the harsh measures as pointless. The media, oddly enough, play a key role in shaping the response of their own country to a particular threat. Having failed to understand the real adequacy of the Chinese measures, the Western press allowed its politicians not to even think about the fact that these measures would be worth studying and repeating.

Let us recall their essence. The smartest of all the Chinese authorities were not the central ones, but the leadership of the Henan province. Mindful of the SARS epidemic, they, without waiting for approval from above, began to restrict the arrival of people from Hubei province at the end of December 2019 - weeks earlier than the rest.

In early January, they launched a systematic disinfectant treatment of public places, and then began to ditch the roads leading to Hubei. A big scandal erupted: in China, the destruction or blockade of roads without the sanction of the central authorities is prohibited, and they forced Henan to partially open the highways.

However, the rapid development of the epidemic starting from the twentieth of January showed that the authorities of this province were right, and the central ones were not. The hashtag # 抄 河南 的 作业 (“Copy Henan's Homework”) instantly became wildly popular on the key Chinese microblogging service Weibo. Everyone began to wonder: why shouldn't Beijing repeat the set of measures for strict quarantine and disinfection of public places, which has already begun in this province?

And so it happened. Since January 23, they began to massively block - and then dig up - part of the roads leading to Wuhan.Trucks with goods necessary for the population passed through special passes through checkpoints - and without unnecessary people in them. The copying of the Henan measures began.

In addition to external quarantine, two makeshift infectious diseases hospitals were built in Wuhan in a week, where they contained Covid-19 patients. In the rest of the provinces, teams of civil servants began to deploy, tracking everyone with whom coronavirus patients who came from Hubei, the center of the epidemic, came into contact. In total, 1800 such teams were deployed. Everyone they found was quarantined and tested for the virus.

To find out the circle of contacts, as well as to prevent the violation of quarantine by persons in it, Beijing used two mobile applications popular in the PRC - AliPay and WeChat. The first application largely monopolized non-cash payments, the local population was used to paying them almost everything, including purchases in the market. In this case, the application has access to the place where the payment was made, as well as information about the addressee to whom the money was sent.

Therefore, almost any unwanted activity of the "quarantine" Chinese was instantly monitored by the government. Upon learning that a person was sick, one could look at the history of AliPay and WeChat and see which other users of these applications were next to the infected.

Applications have also been used to create “mobile traffic lights”. The phone carrier had a green, yellow or red code indicating its status: healthy, suspected of having a coronavirus, or reliably infected. Looking at the color code, the security of railway stations and any checkpoints understood whether it was possible to release a person from one zone to another.

In Wuhan itself, on January 23, the Bureau of Tourism and Culture temporarily closed all museums, memorials, public libraries and cultural centers - and also canceled travel to and from Wuhan. On January 23-25, these measures were taken in the rest of the country. On the 21st, the Ministry of Education decided to extend the New Year holidays for universities and schools.

Li Bin, deputy head of China's National Health Committee, initiated another major containment measure on January 22: the Chunyun 2020 halt. Chunyun is called the period of New Year's travel. This is the time of the world's largest migration of people: from January 10 to February 18, 2020, at least 300 million round-trip trips in the PRC were expected.


In Chunyun, people visit their families, an old and respected custom that is difficult to stop. However, starting on January 25, when Xi Jinping finally launched massive measures to stop the epidemic, Chunyun was practically frozen. The number of trips has decreased many times and was mainly limited to areas far from Wuhan.

In addition, on January 25-26, the CCP Politburo decided to mass medical equipment and personnel in Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, providing all-round assistance to this region - from food to masks and other means of limiting the spread of the epidemic by those already sick. Isn't it a sharp contrast with the EU, where Italy, in fact, never received noticeable assistance from its neighbors?

For families quarantined in their homes, many Chinese cities only allowed one person to go to the store once every two days. All violations of this regime were monitored by patrols and by tracking the phones of citizens.

The speed of decision making and implementation was maximum. A simple example is masks. Normally, in China, they were made at 10 million a day, largely for export (there are half of the production of masks in the world). However, during the epidemic, 2,500 local companies that had never made masks before were partially redesigned to manufacture them. As a result, they were able to raise the country's production volume to 116 million masks per day.

Improvisation in the spirit of the Soviet reorientation of bed factories to produce PCA in World War II proved to be effective. The largest mask manufacturer in the world today is the BYD automobile company.It makes five million a day - the same as the rest of the world outside of China before the outbreak. The manufacturer of Chinese military aircraft Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group and the continental factories Foxconn (the company, among other things, assembling the iPhone), followed its path.

Western companies talk a lot about their desire to start producing such products. But their real successes in this regard are still modest.

Why developed countries did not write off China's homework

The rest of the world was aware of Beijing's response to the epidemic. “Hundreds of thousands in China have not been infected with Covid-19 because of these aggressive measures,” said Bruce Aylward, head of the WHO delegation overseeing the outbreak in China. The Chinese response, he said, "has changed the course of a rapidly evolving and deadly epidemic."

Alas, mainly for China. But why? What is unrealistic about blocking roads, isolating the population at home, blocking excess passenger traffic and reorienting enterprises to produce things needed to fight the epidemic?

Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergic and Infectious Diseases (and one of the White House pandemic consultants), explained this succinctly in early March. He noted, "These [Chinese] activities were draconian, something we can never do here [in the US]."

What seems to the developed countries the toughest in the Chinese quarantine? First, the blockade of fifty million residents of Hubei province. Secondly, strict control over the observance of quarantine - including rewards for those who “knock” on neighbors who once again leave their homes. The same category is used to track citizens in quarantine using mobile applications. Third, the ban on major public events.

At first, the US federal authorities were extremely cautious about implementing detailed measures. Some state governors tried to replace the central government by banning public events and the like. But others simply refuse to do it. As a result, the fight against Covid-19 in the States turned into some kind of tragicomedy based on the "Tale of Bygone Years": this land is great and abundant, but there is no order in it, because there is no one "to come and volunteer with it."

It seems that the American authorities should not call the Chinese measures draconian and irreproducible in the conditions of the Western world. They, no doubt, are quite capable of other countries.

Let's start by tracking citizens. Let's open the American press:


“The documents that The Washington Post was able to obtain indicate that the US National Security Agency collects billions of records a day to track the status of mobile phone users around the world … including a number of telecommunications companies here in the US … Most of the tracked by definition in nothing not guilty and not even suspected … The authorities say that a large number of tracks of US phone users are collected "unintentionally". Using these huge datasets of location-tracking data, the NSA is using advanced analysis techniques to identify those it calls "fellow travelers" - unknown accomplices who may meet or travel with those already being tracked by US authorities."

So, the States are constantly, always tracking the phones of huge masses of ordinary, innocent people around the world, including many US citizens. People who are smart enough to violate quarantine are rarely far-sighted enough to do so without their phone on. That is, in American conditions, it is not even necessary to pay citizens to knock on their neighbors, as in the PRC: they themselves constantly knock on themselves. Until the battery of their smartphone runs out.

Therefore, all the stories of Fauci and others that America cannot behave like a totalitarian China and track contacts of cases are worthless. The states are already doing it all the time, with billions.All they need is desire to turn the NSA's tremendous capabilities into the fight against coronavirus. In an amicable way, the Agency could trace the contacts of the infected in almost any country in the world without overstrain. And simply in the form of charity to transfer this data to local authorities.


It is also doubtful that strict quarantine measures are not available to the West. Let's pay attention to Italy and France: it was announced there for virtually the entire country, where there is China, which blocked only one province, where only a few percent of the local population lived. To travel to another place, an Italian must fill out a special request for the police - that is, a sharp restriction on freedom of movement is also available in a developed country. In fact, everything is closed except for pharmacies and supermarkets. The streets of local cities are combed, and those who violate the quarantine are herded home.

Conclusion: The West can copy the Chinese approach to containing the epidemic. However, he only does it when it’s too late. With a pistol barrel at his temple, at a time when the coronavirus begins to kill hundreds of people a day. We do not doubt for a moment that the United States will effectively and completely copy the Chinese measures, but only when the death rate there rises to an unpleasantly high level.

It seems that the developed countries would be better off starting to “cheat homework” from the PRC now, before the Italian scenario is realized. But there is one big obstacle along the way: they don't want to.

Willingness to "write off homework" depends not only on the severity of the situation with the actual "homework", but also on the conceit of who can write it off or not. The Western world believes that it cannot copy from others: in principle, it is not inclined to think that it has something to learn from others. As a rule, this is a justified position - but not in the case of fighting a major epidemic, since modern Western countries have little experience in this area.

Alexandra Phelan, China specialist at the Global Center for Health and Safety Sciences, believes other countries should not copy the PRC's approach. “Whether it works or not is not the only measure of whether a particular public health measure is good or not,” she said. "There are many things that can stop the epidemic, but which we find hateful for a just and free society."

Once again, we believe that other states will have to copy China's efforts to contain the epidemic, as Italy already had to do. But the fierce reluctance to "copy Henan's homework" will definitely prevent the United States or Britain from copying it in full and on time. Yes, they introduced restrictions on movement, but tracing contacts of infected people by phone is still not fully used to combat the epidemic. And this, unfortunately, can lead to the death of many of their citizens.

What about ourselves, Russia?

Yes, definitely, one cannot say that we are doing everything right. Obviously, our measures to prevent the development of the epidemic are half-hearted. If in Moscow for a non-working week almost everything is closed except for pharmacies and grocery stores, then in the regions much is left to the local authorities. In the meantime, those are still deciding: who is in the forest, who is for firewood. Somewhere dentistry will be accepted with acute pain, somewhere without it. Some of the parks are closed, somewhere there is free access to them. It’s as if it’s not obvious that a lot of people will inevitably go there with a week-long vacation and warm weather.

And what about personal protection? Look outside. Who wears rubber (or at least fabric, but replaceable and washable) gloves and other masks? That's right - people from 25 to 50 years old, and that's not all. Yes, a mask, unlike gloves, is not always a good idea, but its presence shows that the citizen is at least nervous about the epidemic.

But most retirees are not even nervous. A significant part of them live according to the principle "my generation went through such things that we are now knee-deep in the sea."Elderly people can joke as much as they want about the fact that the virus was invented in the pension fund in order to save on payments, but they are in no hurry to defend themselves against this very virus.


Outside the Moscow Ring Road, isolation measures are often half-hearted: the local population seems to have not yet believed in the seriousness of the situation. And the regional authorities are in no hurry to help him. This "semi-quarantine" only works until the epidemic has entered the mass stage. Should the sick begin to number in the thousands - and the massive free movement of elderly people will give a rapid surge in diseases.

In order for the quarantine week to somehow work, tough measures are needed from the state. Consciousness alone is not enough. At least in Moscow, restrictions on the frequency of leaving apartments are required, as in Hubei. Is our state ready for them or is it totalitarian only in the imagination of human rights defenders? A big question, and to be honest, we are not sure about the answer.

Another area where we are clearly lagging behind China, but which has not yet shown itself, is the massing and concentration of all the resources of society on a possible outbreak of the disease. Moscow is too big for a large epidemic to be stopped by existing hospitals. New temporary hospitals were built in China for a reason. It would be nice if similar construction projects in Russia could be completed on time.

Finally, attention is drawn to the fact that the Russian industry, in contrast to the same Chinese, mass production of masks, gloves and the like, not only does not have, but is not trying to organize it. It is foolish to expect that our manufacturers of cars or combat aircraft will take and reorganize to produce millions of masks per day, like BYD.

Domestic businessmen are simply not good at organizing mass production of new products. And, to tell the truth, they are not too eager to learn this difficult business. Their typical line of thinking has always been different: we will make money on some simpler business, and we will buy more complicated ones abroad. The problem is that now “abroad” means China, and it just as banned the export of masks abroad, has not lifted the ban.

Until the epidemic in the country has reached the American level, masks seem to be not much needed: it does not protect a healthy person. But what will happen if the Italian scenario is realized in Russia? What if there are so many patients that they need masks to weaker infecting others?

Finally, the preparation for decisions that will become inevitable at the onset of mass diseases in Russia is not particularly visible. Obviously, then it will be necessary to isolate from the country first Moscow and St. Petersburg, and then the adjacent regions. Otherwise, it is difficult to avoid traveling by car to the country house - or to the elderly parents in Saratov. With all that it implies.

It makes sense to “close” these particular regions: due to their specificity, they should have the maximum number of cases. At the same time, medicine is the best here. In Moscow alone, there are the same five thousand ventilators as in the entire 60 millionth Italy. The rest of the regions of Russia are provided with them less generously, and it would be unreasonable to release a large outbreak outside the capitals.

But in order to ensure their blockade, additional police and army forces must be deployed to the Moscow Ring Road and the Ring Road, checkpoints must be prepared and much more. It is difficult to prepare effective measures of this kind completely unnoticed. Alas, so far there are no signs that they are preparing at all.

We sincerely hope that the current - albeit half-hearted - Russian quarantine measures will be able to contain the spread of the epidemic until the summer. It is more difficult for viruses of this kind to spread in normal - hot - summer, which means that it is extremely important to survive until the summer without a massive outbreak.

But if Russia fails to contain COVID-19 in the next 12 weeks, things will not be very happy.The lack of rigidity of mass control over the movement of people and the inability to quickly maneuver production and construction are frankly weak points of our country against the background of the PRC. And it is not obvious that we are able to quickly make them strong.

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