The Chinese government’s thorough and invasive people-control policies to control the coronavirus outbreak enabled my startup’s Suzhou office to reopen last week but, as the virus spreads around the globe, I wonder how the United States and other countries will manage.
Our company spent 10 days implementing procedures to pass the reopening protocols. We formed a virus protection committee. We bought 1,000 surgical masks, special disinfectant gloves, and a microwave to reheat homemade lunches, since gathering at restaurants is forbidden. We documented every employee’s Chinese New Year holiday itinerary, including modes of transportation, daily activities, the people they met, and the health status of everyone around them.
After three meetings with local officials, we received approval to reopen. The day my office reopened, our staff drove their cars to work, wore masks except when eating, and had their temperature taken twice. They disinfected all surfaces, and wore coats because the windows were open and the heat off to enhance airflow and stop internal circulation. Their ID cards were checked.
These nationwide interventions seem to be bearing fruit. Although the cases reached 77,150 Monday, it was the sixth day in a row China had fewer than 2,000 new cases, and the number of deaths per day is decreasing. As of Feb. 21, Suzhou had 87 cases of Covid-19 but virtually no new cases since Feb. 12.
Managing through this crisis has been challenging. I left China on Jan. 23, the day Wuhan went under quarantine. Two days later, as the Hubei quarantine reached more than 50 million people, I evacuated our other American employee. She flew out the night before US airlines suspended service with China. I have spent days procuring masks for my team. My orders were canceled multiple times. When I had finally pieced together 500 units for my team, a friend reached out asking me to find 10,000 more. I couldn’t.
Social media in China is a mix of patriotic sentiment and veiled criticism. The government’s tactics are increasingly aggressive — The New York Times reported that 150 million are on virtual lockdown in their homes and 760 million people, half of the population, are living with constraints on individual movement. Our senior manager signs out of her home to drive to work and receives a paper pass. She must submit it upon returning or she can’t reenter her community. For weeks, our employees have been required to stay in their apartments with one person allowed out every two days to buy food.
Our employees move through multiple checks to and from work. Checkpoints have popped up in transportation hubs. Travelers and commuters are questioned about their health and travel history, and sentries check cell phone data to confirm the answers. Chinese phone companies and the search engine giant Baidu have given personal cell phone records to the government so they can be scanned for travel to Hubei. Tollbooth attendants now measure forehead temperatures and check ID cards on Suzhou highways.
Business is taking a hit. Starbucks shut half of its stores in China and Adidas announced its Asian business is down 85 percent. Our customers are hunkered down and our revenues delayed. We are resisting layoffs but reduced our budget by 20 percent and are planning for a three-month contingency hibernation. One of our collaborators has not been outside his apartment building for a month.
Hubei province, with a death rate four times China’s average, has the most spartan controls. Our one employee from Hubei has been quarantined since Jan. 23. In the last two weeks, officials went door to door checking residents for a fever or other suspicious symptoms. The sick were transferred, forcefully if needed, to huge quarantine facilities with insufficient medical care or staff. Now the province is reviewing physician health care records of all patients with fever symptoms and all people who bought over-the-counter cough or fever drugs to root out those infected who have not come forth.
The events of this viral epidemic have unfolded with lightning speed. It is a warning. No country can handle a rapidly and desperately sick population of tens of thousands — not even the United States.
Indeed, China, is able to move faster in a crisis than the United States:
- The Chinese government built two brick-and-mortar hospitals capable of treating 2,600 patients with severe respiratory illness in 10 days.
- It set up 14 field hospitals and now has 14,000 patient beds in Wuhan.
- It quarantined 55 million people in four days.
China’s population obeys government directives and stays home for weeks. These are not steps that most nations could undertake successfully, even if they do seem necessary. Democracies operate with tenets of liberty and personal freedoms. Last week, South Korea announced an uncontrolled epidemic largely incubated in the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, whose leadership directed members to ignore the virus and its symptoms and continue to pray and proselytize in crowded conditions perfect for viral transmission. Thousands of activists in Seoul ignored common sense and a ban on public gatherings and held a political demonstration while the epidemic is spreading unchecked, with 602 infections in a few days.
How would Boston residents respond to our schools being closed and our movements restricted, and to being quarantined in our homes — possibly for weeks on end? How can free societies manage a biological scourge?
Would we be willing to sacrifice our individual liberties for the sake of protecting our nation? We can only hope we never find out.
Heidi Wyle is the CEO of Venti Technologies.