The Corona Virus Saga

The Corona Virus Saga encapsulates the tensions of East West politics. The competing ideologies, of open democracy and freedom to live vs authoritarian secrecy, censorship and effectiveness to save lives, Rival technologies racing to produce tracking apps and vaccines and our country’s images abroad. It re-awakens our prejudices. and fears of the orient and the hypocrisy and resentments of the West..

I had returned to China, in the second week of 2020, after Christmas holidays in the UK unaware of the early chatter, on Chinese social media, about the new SARS like virus. It wasn’t until near to the Chinese New Year that vague stories began to appear in the western media that I follow. I was travelling to Tianjin for new year celebration the day Wuhan went into lockdown and took pictures of all the people already wearing masks.
​ I guess it was a topic of conversation among the family I stayed with, but little was mentioned to me. We went out for dinner at a restaurant and made dumplings on New Years Eve like every year. So, it was surprising when the next day it was decided we would return home.
We came back on empty trains, the security guards were already decked out in masks and plastic suits. In my ignorance about what had been happening in the country, it all looked over dramatic. Despite being in the country and staying with a Chinese family, I was no better informed or prepared than the world outside.
I started writing the Corona |Virus Diary the day after returning to Beijing and its interesting to look back at my slow change in understanding. Those early days, as news emerged about the lack of transparency, the slow response and the silencing of whistle blowers and reporters, a repeat of the mistakes of SARS virus 8 years earlier, I thought the anger being expressed by the Chinese people might bring changes. But during a few days of lockdown, while we were all sheltering inside, roads were closed off and guards posted at entrances to living areas, access everywhere needed temperature checks and phone numbers recorded.
I had always wondered why the area I live in has a tall wall topped by electric fence and CCTV cameras. In a country where crime is so low it felt like a ridiculous safeguard. Once lockdown started and new access cards issued, it was obvious this security was about control. Useful in controlling the virus spread, but designed for controlling people. The speed and success of the lockdown was the enactment of the government’s plans for dealing with unrest.
By the time I returned to work in the office, the virus had been largely ‘defeated’ – as they say in China and the hold on the movements of people complete. The media too had changed. The outrage at the early handling of the virus and the anger from the death of Li Weiliang (the eye doctor who had tried to warn about the virus and had, instead, been forced to sign a confession of rumour mongering) had calmed. Instead, China watched in disbelief at the west’s pathetic response.
The UK was two months behind China, had two months to prepare. Instead, as the virus grew, there were shortages of PPE and panic buying, protests, the emergence of conspiracies, debate about the use of face masks, talk about developing herd immunity. Then once the virus took hold no country had the power, the structures, nor the workforce to do anything like China had. The freedom and democracy that the west trumpeted made it impotent, and the concept of those values were abused by a public believing they gave them freedom to do, say, or think anything, without regard to others. Science was the only way out, but few people understood or trusted it.
On the first day back at work I made a video of the measures taken in China to show to my family and friends in the UK. It showed the contrast to the token efforts being made back home. But also helped explain to Chinese colleagues why the efforts in the west could not copy what had been done in China. I could see they couldn’t understand why western governments were so weak, or the people so stupid. They saw nothing sinister about their government’s readiness and ability to impose absolute order, nor anything strange about their collective, placid compliance.
I heard of no dissent or criticism on line, or at work. By now the stories of the early mistakes and cover up, the outrage over the treatment of those that tried to warn, or had reported about life in Wuhan had been removed, or silenced by national pride. A colleague suggested to me the virus might have come from America.
The summer passed with life in China slowly becoming more normal, while in the outside world, the virus raged uncontrolled; the horrific death toll climbing daily. Sporadic new cases were reported in China from people returning from abroad, or from imported food. China felt like the isolated kingdom of sense and reason it has historically claimed. It’s mantra of stability and peace looked like paradise compared with the economic carnage, the protests and the complex and confusing government guidance from western democracies. Even the censorship of the media in China looked preferable to the laughable 5G conspiracies and the ravings of Trump.

The news of the handling of the virus in the west was a story of chaos and failure. It plays out over the year in the changing lockdown tiers and circuit breakers used to balance hospital admissions with costs to business. A strategy that didn’t aim to defeat the virus only to manage the numbers of sick that threatened to overwhelm hospitals. It was a continuous advertisement for the Chinese Communist Party domestically. Their early failures, now blamed on a few individuals, were mostly forgotten or forgiven in the resounding success of later action. The whole experience had, in Chinese eyes, vindicated their country, the political system, and above all, its leadership.

And as time has moved on, the saga didn’t get better; the selfish scrambling for vaccines, new variants emerging out from the reservoirs of the mass infected,  anti-vaxxers and still Covid deniers. As western countries limited freedom in lockdowns and travel bans, then Twitter and Facebook’s attempts to combat fake news by closing accounts and removing posts, it looked like the West was emulating the behaviour they have long criticised China for.

As we moved into another Chinese New Year, the Chinese annual TV gala remembered the success in defeating the virus and continuing to grow its economy. Its success, along with its vaccine promises, provided a powerful image to the people in other counties where Christmas celebrations were practically cancelled as they remained stuck in permanent lockdown. It’s not surprising that despite no cases in Beijing, people were still encouraged not to travel. The government is always cautious around the annual meeting. This year, they may also have been wary of being seen to be celebrating and carrying on life as normal in the country where it all started, in case it was perceived as gloating.

It wasn’t just the government that worried about their image. The Chinese people were also desperate that the virus didn’t start in China. Some openly believed it started abroad and that the western media are anti-China. Others were content to think they don’t know for sure, that it hasn’t yet been proven. When the WHO reported the withholding of data on clinical trials of vaccines, or data about early cases it looked suspiciously like a continuation of the cover up of last year. Maybe data on the early cases would confirm the favoured theory that it originated in China from bats and they would prefer not to know. It’s possible there is guilt about the millions of deaths, or at least embarrassment about its links to wild animals and its confirmation of the stereotype of Chinese eating habits and animal welfare. Fuel to the racist and the populist governments that want to blame Johnny Foreigner and especially the communist system.

Early in 2021, there was a shift away from news of lockdowns and more focus on the positive progress of the vaccine rollout. There was the start of competition and national pride in the vaccine’s origin, numbers vaccinated and in the amounts gifted to other nations. Countries balanced keeping enough stocks for themselves without appearing to selfishly block exports abroad. In Europe, vaccines became another weapon in the Brexit argument while China tried to look generous in the provision of ‘vaccines,’ with news announcements of ‘free donations abroad’
A year on the global pandemic should have brought us together in fighting a common enemy, but its further entrenched our ideologies, legitimised authoritarianism, confirmed old stereotypes and fuelled patriotism. Perhaps in the science labs and research papers, beyond the finger pointing politicians and social media mobs, something will emerge that makes it all worth while. That feels a long, long way off.
As spring came and the success of the vaccine roll out continued, the world was full of hope for a return to normal life. As Brits braved the cold and celebrated outdoors at the latest step in lifting lockdown there was news of increased infections from the SA variant. A report told of quarantine failures, achievement of only 50% of contact testing, the need to test and isolate in the community being just advisory. The response illustrated the west’s continuing weak response, still only managing the deaths to a tolerable level.  In India too, the Virus situation reached disaster levels, caused by ignoring scientific advice and warnings, denial of problems and the pursuit of populist political decisions to allow mass gatherings, including political rallies -. The same old same old.

The virus wasn’t going away. Countries that had got on top of the epidemic were by summer 2021 suddenly seeing new waves as behaviour became complacent, large percentages declining to be vaccinated while new variants made it more infectious. The UK ordered 60 Million more vaccine doses for booster jabs in the Autumn – a safeguard for the vulnerable as it spreads and mutates around the world. In China there was reluctance to have a vaccine, and initially, little government pressure. And with doubts of its effectiveness. and few cases it looked unlikely to achieve much immunity.

Meanwhile, with over 70% of the UK population fully vaccinated it started to nervously reopen, hoping the acquired immunity of the summer will be enough to keep the death rate tolerable and hospital capacity manageable during the winter.

In contrast, as the more infectious variants strained the Chinese policy for zero cases, its trumpeted success in defeating the virus made it hard to change course and instead, it turns more isolationist as winter approached. With a public so fearful of the virus  It was hard to see how it could abandon this strategy but equally manage the influx of foreigners for the winter Olympics, The event was scheduled to start when early vaccinators immunity would have declined, and seasonal flu returned.

By the end of summer the number of cases in the UK were rising again, you could feel the nervousness in the expectation the trend would continue when schools reopened and how this would translate into hospital admissions. The media was upbeat about the comparatively low death rate and reporting that natural acquired immunity was better protection than vaccines. In contrast, the usually quiet Chinese media was openly confirming their vaccines are not as effective. Beijing increased its quarantine to 4 weeks and made leaving the country and returning harder. As cases continued to sporadically occur, the fear turned to paranoia. Foreigners, even if they hadn’t left the country need to complete long pointless forms when travelling internally,. Those abroad were advised not to take western vaccines or the antibody levels triggered would be too high to re-enter China.

China’s policy of isolation from the world developed another layer as winter approached with testing required to enter the city from other parts of the country. In Europe the number of case numbers continued to soar with some countries reintroducing restrictions, blaming the unvaccinated. In the UK, booster shots were promoted as a means to keep hospital admissions down but rumours of another Christmas lockdown would be introduced was feared. The contrast between Britain braving it out with a steady 50,000 cases a day and ‘practically no regulations’ compared with Beijing’s 1 or 2 cases a day and closed bars and cancelled events had not been as stark since the first months.

As 2022 started the blame appeared to have stopped as the world concentrated on opening up and China focussed on protecting the winter games.  The rumour was that China would relax after the games and there was optimism that perhaps the worst would be behind us; things might return to normal. But in the week before Christmas with the new Omicron variant doubling every two days in the UK, that looked like a lost hope. Its infectiousness on top of the levels of the normal variant that had become accepted made any normality look as far off as ever and the prospect of more restrictions inevitable.

Remarkably, as January progressed case numbers plateaued, deaths fell and restrictions all around the world suddenly began to lift.  The success of the vaccines, the infrastructure to test and trace, better treatments and new drugs all fuelled the feeling that its effectively over. Only China with its zero case policy is stuck with the constant vigilance, mass testing, closed borders and the fear that this produces. If they change that policy, and surely one day they must, it will feel like the start again in China.

But for now, the sudden ending in the west is a huge relief. Despite record numbers of cases, the policy is a return to normal. People are fed up with the restrictions and also its dominance of the news reporting. Headlines switch to war in Ukraine and the death toll from Covid is ignored.

The new wave of cases globally also tests China’s zero tolerance policy. As major cities fall into lockdown, there are reports of hunger, children being separated from parents and infected pets being culled. Increasingly extreme measures to maintain their policy. There is a feel that Shanghai is the deciding battle. If the measures prove too much, or fail to work, its over. But if the outbreak is contained, it becomes even harder to return to normal. 

The difference between Chinese and western culture is drawn vividly by their respective Covid policies. Leaders on both sides claim success in how they’ve steered through the pandemic and how they are learning to live with the virus. The way we live can be different but we all benefit from lessons learned from the experiences of both sides. People should remember the speed that disease spreads, its disregard for borders and nationality, its constant evolution into new variants, the victory of science in providing answers and solutions.

As our attention moves to other news we mustn’t forget the importance in vaccinating the rest of the world to help prevent more variants emerging. The much quoted phrase of ‘we’re all in this together’ still applies.

We will see as time moves on….

Corona timeline

December 2019
30th Dr Li Weilian shares new virus warning on line
January 2020
1st Li Wulian signs confession of rumour mongering
2nd Genome sequence mapped by virologist Dr Zhang in Shanghai
9th Chinese experts sent to Wuhan conclude potential pandemic
14th Ma Xiaowei issues order to prepare for pandemic
18th New year banquet in Wuhan for 40,000 families
23rd Wuhan lockdown starts
25th Chinese new year
28th Foreigners airlifted from Wuhan
February 2020
3rd Start the working from home.
6th asked if want to return to UK
17th Security visibly tightened and VPNs blocked
March 2020
8th North Italy lockdown
16th Return to office in China
23rd UK begins lockdown
28th Chinese outrage at death of Li Weiliang
Panic buying and mask shortages in UK
April 2020
5th Send 400 face masks to UK
Boris Johnson admitted to hospital
May 2020
1st UK testing 100,000 per day
4th 400 more masks sent to UK family
5th Trial of contact tracing app starts in UK
China records first day of no new cases
June 2020
Roof top bars open in Beijing
10th Shops in UK reopen
11th UK Contract tracing app abandoned
21st Concern after 11 new cases in Beijing from imported salmon
Cases in UK ‘creep up‘ from 3000 to 4000 a day.
July 2020
Mass anti-mask protests in London
August 2020
8th Face masks are compulsory in UK
Eat out to help out scheme starts
September 2020
Football season restarts in UK
UK parents fined if Kids not back to school
New Contract tracing app launched in UK
October 2020
3rd October – trump gets virus and goes to hospital
China test 9 million in city after 12 new cases discovered 
30th UK starts 4 week lockdown
November 2020
7th  Friends in UK test positive
Sporadic cases in China traced to imports
Global cases pass 50 million
December 2020
Vaccine roll out starts for over 75s in UK
Vaccines approved in US and Russia
New variants detected in SA and UK.
Christmas shutdown announced in UK
January 2021
UK starts 3rd lockdown
EU and UK scramble over vaccines
28th WHO begins investigation in Wuha
February 2021
Travel discouraged for Chinese New Year.
15th Hotel quarantine starts in UK for overseas arrivals 
Vaccine for general public starts in China
China Vaccines ‘free’ to 53 countries
March 2021
13th China willing to provide vaccines for Olympic games.
18th Escalating UK/EU row about vaccine exports
20th China offer vaccine aid to 80 countries
21st 3rd wave of lockdowns in Europe
22nd Vaccine score: China 75M UK 28.3M 
  April 2021
3rd AstraZenica vaccine linked to 7 blood clot deaths
11th Gao Fu admits low China vaccine efficiency
12th Brits celebrate as pub gardens open
28th 360,000 new cases in India
May 2021
4th Vaccine score: UK 50M China 281M
UK gov concern over Indian varient spike
17th UK allows mixing inside
27th US wants new origin investigation
June 2021
9th Vaccine score UK 71M China 890M 
15th UK gov delay easing lockdown
26th My son tests positive in UK
July 2021
82 yr old Chinese relative declines vaccine
19th All Covid restrictions lifted in UK
27th Cases in UK fall for 6th day
August 2021
3rd Surge of infections in China
USA sees wave of cases among the unvaccinated.
12th Tighter restrictions as Chinese new cases reach 1800 
19th 3600 cases per day n UK but deaths down
23rd. China Vaccine needed for downtown bars
28th Chinese news confirms vaccine only 50% effective
September 2021
13th 1 foreign passenger of 19 carriage train has details recorded
  15th UK Virus modellers forecast up to 7000 hospital cases per day by October.
October 2021
1st MSD drug halves hospitalization and deaths 
CCP claim half world’s vaccines supplied by China
12th UK reports handling of pandemic worst public health failure
13th WHO recommends 3rd shot for China vaccines
November 2021
6th Europe returns to epidemic centre
8th increasing Covid  restrictions in Beijing
22nd UK recognises WHO approved vaccines
26th Omicron variant named by WHO
December 2021
3rd Mask wearing reintroduced in UK
8th UK Introduces Plan B 
19th Omicron variant triggers Major Incident in London
22nd UK case number exceed 100,00 per day
January 2020

15th 1st case reported in Beijing after 26 free days

19th Work from home guidance in UK ends.

23rd Mandatory tests in parts of Beijing as cases reach 34

27th Face coverings in UK no longer mandatory.


February 2022

4th Winter Olympics start in Beijing

24th Self isolation after positive result not required in UK


March 2022

28th Shanghai enters lockdown

31st Infected pets reportedly culled.


April 2022

2nd Record 4.9 Million cases in UK

4th Infected children separated from parents


May 2022

1st Beijing closes bars and restauants again

The rest of the world moves onto a new crisis