Tackling COVID-19: Lessons from China

7 APRIL 2020

As countries across the world grapple with rising fatalities, China has started to lift its lockdown. Plan International China Country Director, Haider Yaqub, gives an account of how his team assisted the Chinese authorities in their COVID-19 response and shares some valuable lessons for the rest of the world.

What emerged as a new coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China towards the end of 2019 soon spread to the rest of the world. On 11 March, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global pandemic. Over a million people have been sickened by COVID-19 and close to 70,000 deaths have occurred at the last count.

Timeline of events 

The novel coronavirus outbreak happened at the worst possible time for China. The government lockdown came into force on January 23rd, just before Chinese New Year. Usually, there are around 3 billion trips undertaken during this period, as people travel home or to their families to celebrate the holiday. Workers get a statutory seven days holidays, offices and businesses are closed.

Once we realised the seriousness of the situation, we worked quickly to locate Plan International staff members and check on their safety. Once their security had been confirmed, we started to think of how we could continue our work and offer assistance.

New ways of working 

We needed to adjust to a new way of functioning as an organisation. There were several challenges which other countries are now experiencing weeks down the line. Schools were closed, so parents had to learn to juggle working from home with childcare. Movement outside the home was restricted. People were allocated specific time slots to leave the house and do their grocery shopping and when they did leave the house, temperatures were checked.

Some people had travelled out of the area for New Year. Some had left their laptops behind or were stranded in remote areas. Luckily, our staff were able to use iPads or smart phones to continue working.

We created a policy for staff working from home, establishing what was business critical.

Pandemic response in China

Governments and donors must ensure the emergency response reaches the most vulnerable, including refugees, displaced people, girls and young women.

Once the protocols were in place, we started a discussion about how best to respond. One of the biggest issues in China and something we’re seeing globally, is the lack of protective gear for front-line staff. Plan International made resources available to our local partners, provincial and county-level governments, who worked with local health bureaus to provide sanitation services, disinfecting sprays and carrying out health and hygiene messaging.

We monitored the progress of our programmes in the communities through social messaging such as WeChat. Plan International China’s response was shared on social media sites which received over 6 million hits.


Reframing programmes in the age of COVID-19

Now, as life slowly begins to normalise in China, Plan International will continue to ensure that all our responses have a COVID-19 lens. When schools start to re-open, we will focus on sanitation and hand-washing education and facilities with emphasis on girls’ needs and requirements.

In the longer-term, we plan to make sure our local programmes focus on bringing girls’ and young women’s voices to the authorities. We will also ensure our youth employment and child protection work takes into account specific challenges posed by COVID-19.

Supporting young people through COVID-19

For generations the world has not seen anything like COVID-19. Probably the most comparable epidemic in recent times was Ebola. Yet in many ways COVID-19 is even more dangerous, because it can be spread by people even when they are asymptomatic.

This is a collective problem, not just a national one

It’s vital for aid agencies to support primary healthcare providers and governments. But at the same time, we must work with girls and young women to engage in discussions which concern them and amplify their voices. We should focus on health, hygiene and handwashing. What is key is equipping communities with the information they need to be able to suppress the transfer of the virus from one person to another. 

We need to remember that in times of crisis it is children, particularly girls, who end up suffering the most. The challenges for girls range from disruption to education, increased risk of sexual violence and negative impacts on their mental health. These impacts will be much greater in poorer countries. Governments and donors must ensure the emergency response reaches the most vulnerable, including refugees, displaced people, girls and young women.

Social and economic effects of COVID-19

If the epicentre of the epidemic shifts to lower income countries with weaker health systems and infrastructure, the consequences could be catastrophic. This in turn harms efforts to control the pandemic in other countries. Governments need to act on this knowledge now, to help prevent the worst from happening.

This is a collective problem, not just a national one. If we can’t stop the spread of COVID-19, it will eat away at the global economy. We will see a rise in unemployment, in livelihood and education issues across all countries. We’re already seeing the impact: more than 1.5 billion students are not attending schools or universities right now due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to UNESCO. 

COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease the world has never been seen before. When it first emerged in China there was no experience to draw on. But as time passes and it spreads to other countries, we can look at China’s experience and draw out some key actions to contain the disease.

Effective public health information and responses promoting basic hygiene such as handwashing can prove instrumental in saving lives. It’s literally in our hands.