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Laurence Brahm: How lessons from SARS have taught us how to fight coronavirus

Saturday ,Feb 22, 2020

A recovered patient is discharged from hospital in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui autonomous region, Feb 20, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]



By Laurence Brahm, a senior international research fellow at CCG



My first thought was that this was SARS all over again. I had lived through SARS and knew that China's government leaders had the experience and its people the resolve and wherewithal to overcome this. My first impression was that they would be able to control the coronavirus quickly and end the crisis. However, as the coronavirus spread, I began to suspect that this was something much bigger, more dangerous and requiring huge resources to get control over the situation. China’s challenge was not only to prevent the spread from affecting its own people. It was a global challenge that only China could meet on behalf of the world. As control measures kicked in, I began to reflect back on the years when we were fighting SARS. It was just under two decades ago.

I will never forget, when SARS broke in 2003 I was with Yang Liping in Kunming for the first dress rehearsal of her Yunnan Impressions music and dance performance. As film director, I was recording the event. Then after the dress rehearsal, authorities told us that the rehearsals would have to be suspended due to SARS and we were all disappointed at the time, but understood the seriousness of the situation. Yang went back to Dali and I went back to Beijing to be with my family. We lived through the whole crisis.

Wang Qishan returned to Beijing to become mayor and I knew this was a good thing. Each day he gave regular news conferences and reports to the media with total transparency. Regardless of how serious a crisis, this kind of transparency and regular communication with the public is very important to achieve collective cooperation and unity in fighting for a single and shared cause.

I see this same approach being adopted by the leadership throughout the coronavirus. And yes, it is working once again. Imagine a country of 1.4 billion people all working in unity to overcome a single challenge. That cannot be done without government accountability and direct daily communication with people at all levels from top all the way down to the lady in the neighborhood committee who comes to your door. It is a massive combined effort and I believe that China's ability to respond to this crisis with such decisiveness derives from the experience with SARS and other challenges in many different forms over these years of economic opening-up and social transformation.

In 2002-2003, SARS transformed us all in China. In the old days people were worried about economics and business. They were rushing to get ahead and forgot about a lot of other things.

SARS made everybody take a breath. Systems of urban sewage, garbage collection and controls over restaurants and kitchen cleanliness all became the new normal. People all began washing hands and toilets began to be treated as important infrastructure. However, still we were rushing. Huge infrastructure investment in the hard things that we need -- roads, rails, connectivity -- all took precedence over other areas like environment and healthcare. Hospitals have become overcrowded and doctors overworked.

These are areas that will need to be reformed and upgraded with the same kind of infrastructure investment and focus on improvement that the core infrastructure received earlier. This is a softer infrastructure but one that is equally important.

The coronavirus brings all of this into new focus and I am certain when the National People's Congress meets later this spring it will propose a lot of healthcare and medical reforms. These areas need attention and I am sure that they will get it and China will excel in integrating new technologies like 5G. Regardless of whether the Americans try to stop 5G, I am certain that China will adopt this technology to systems internally like medical and environment and move faster ahead than America in these areas in the decade ahead!

Of course China can overcome the economic throwback of the coronavirus crisis. I can say this with confidence at my age, having lived through many crisis situations in China and other parts of Asia where I have worked. Each crisis creates new resolve. The strength of the Chinese people lies in their culture and the natural resiliency that is part of that culture.

Taoism is about change. Buddhism is about seeing past-present-future simultaneously and being able to turn negative situations into positive by realizing that everything is about how something is perceived. Confucianism gives Chinese people the organizational capability to respond to any situation and crisis and the longitudinal and latitudinal matrix of organization to respond to any situation and crisis. These are three aspects of the Chinese collective unconscious that are ever-present in everyone in China always and that is a resilience that no Western country or people have.

Yes, first quarter growth will be low, maybe 1 percent. Second quarter may not be much better. But just wait, just wait and watch the growth and transformation that will occur when this crisis passes and the government comes in with new fiscal programs for the development of healthcare and environmental sectors, leading to a new surge of more jobs and more opportunities.

Remember one thing. Never, ever, ever underestimate the resilience of the Chinese people and the organizational capability of their government to meet a challenge face on. I am not saying this as a theory. I have seen and lived this throughout my own four decades in this country. And I am seeing it again. 


About Author 



Laurence Brahm, a senior international research fellow at Center for China and Globalization(CCG) and founding director of the Himalayan Consensus, an author of Zhu Rongji and the Transformation of Modern China.


Laurence Brahm is also 2019 recipient of the China Friendship Award at the 70th anniversary celebrations of the PRC. In 2016 he received the Social Responsibility Award for his contribution to China's environmental policy of ecological civilization.




From China Daily,2020-02-22
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