Covid-19: Learnings From China On Reopening The Economy

The Chinese experience might offer valuable insights as India navigates this critical juncture.

A padlock hangs from a shuttered store in a near-empty Connaught Place, in New Delhi, on May 14, 2020. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)
A padlock hangs from a shuttered store in a near-empty Connaught Place, in New Delhi, on May 14, 2020. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

The fourth phase of India’s lockdown was significantly different from what has been observed during the preceding weeks. While the central government has established its objective of preserving both lives and livelihoods through the relaxation of mobility and commercial restrictions, the socio-economic and public health impact of these measures are yet to be assessed. With the aim of stimulating economic activity and protecting against the ills of unemployment, hunger, and extreme poverty that the pandemic is offsetting, India will have to tailor all future interventions keeping in mind the demographic and socio-economic diversity of its population.

While the government’s approach is certainly unique to the Indian context, lessons from other countries that have had some success in containing the coronavirus and simultaneously restarting economic activity can offer a useful roadmap as India strives to balance both concerns in the coming weeks.

China, the first country to be struck by the global pandemic, has observed a sharp decline of cases since the lifting of its national lockdown in April 2020. The Chinese experience might offer valuable insights as India navigates this critical juncture.

1. Health Codes And Travel Cards

Citizens in China are being assigned color-specific “health codes” based on their identity details, place of residence, and whether or not they exhibit any symptoms. Using big data from smartphones, these codes locate at-risk populations that dictate social movement in subways, hotels, and other public places. Users must fill out electronic forms on their smartphones providing specific details on fever and cough, post which they are assigned green, yellow, or red color codes based on the degree of risk. India’s own Aarogya Setu has similar functions, and its application can be scaled during lockdown 4.0.

2. Point-To-Point Transport Of Labour Personnel

In order to restart labour mobility after easing the lockdown, China adopted 'point-to-point' transport for migrant workers who were stranded in the countryside after Chinese New Year celebrations and were unable to return to the city for work. Migrants were transported from home to the workplace directly in groups within designated buses that followed prescribed routes. Each bus ran at half-capacity to allow social distancing with the last two rows reserved as an isolation area in case passengers develop a fever. While the circumstances are different in India, point-to-point transport may be a viable solution to restart labour and manufacturing activities while prioritising safety.

3. Special Preparedness Measures In Manufacturing Establishments

With manufacturing being China’s leading economic driver, the safe reopening of production facilities was a high priority after the lifting of its lockdown. Special preparedness and precautionary measures have been instituted. Foxconn, the largest manufacturer for Apple in China, has delineated strict policies. In Zhengzhou, workers are clustered in groups of 20 and must travel, eat, sleep, and work together to reduce transmission risks. Infrared video cameras track body temperatures of workers in real-time. While some of these measures might be extreme for implementation in India, designating certain preventive and emergency protocols will help balance safety with production.

4. Contact Tracing Specific To Age And Social Setting

Chinese researchers are using mathematical modeling for contact tracing and identifying populations that are in transmission hotspots. In a study conducted by Chinese academics and researchers that categorised populations based on age and social setting, it was found that middle-aged persons (between ages 23-44) were most prone to coronavirus transmission as they interacted with others in workplaces, educational institutions, markets, etc. This exposure poses a risk to their families and communities. Using computational techniques to aid contact tracing might similarly help identify populations, which are transmission hotspots. Social distancing norms must, therefore, be strictly enforced for these groups.

5. Different Work Resumption Plan For Each City

Since disease transmission patterns varied from city to city in terms of population demographics, social setting, etc., the work resumption plan was also tailored to fit each city’s respective context. Northern China and Beijing had more stringent restrictions compared to Shanghai. In Wuhan, the lockdown was lifted much later on April 8. A similar approach is already being adopted in India through the segregation of red, orange, and green zones, which permit varying degrees of movement and economic activity, based on the level of risk. This approach will have to permeate to the level of major Indian metros as well, where easing of lockdown must consider the work profiles, age, and other demographic aspects of the population.

6. Partnerships For Testing And Contact Tracing

In China, testing and contact tracing is being carried out in cooperation with multiple departments under the leadership of the local coronavirus epidemic headquarters. Epidemiological investigators are responsible for organising and tracing close contacts. Community managers, and public security and communications departments cooperate with and aid these epidemiological investigators. Customs, railways, civil aviation, and other departments provide passenger information to detect close contacts for cases imported from outside.

7. Private Investment For Public Health And Research Entrepreneurs

China, Europe, and North America have facilitated CSR investment in public health and health research entrepreneurs to focus on the development of newer therapeutics, diagnostics, artificial intelligence for data analytics, health devices, and tele-consultations to simplify health services. Civic bodies, universities, hospitals, and businesses provide “rent-free incubators” to scientist-entrepreneurs to head-start innovations. This concept has been adapted by IITs and IIMs in India, and some public-private partnerships that require massive scaling-up, so as to generate jobs and innovations.

Dr Subhash Hira is Professor of Global Health, University of Washington - Seattle, and Kaamila Patherya is Programme Manager, Sambodhi Research.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.