Hari Vasudevan : In remembrance

The Chinese Model of Corona Containment Will Strike Suifenhe Town Next

Publication: The Wire Date: Link:

The People’s Republic of China border town of Suifenhe is marked for lockdown to prevent a new spike of COVID-19 cases in China. A third of China’s new post-Wuhan cases of coronavirus (25) have come through this town, en route from Russia, but now been scattered all over the PRC. There are also 86 other coronavirus positive, but asymptomatic, cases whose source of infection is vague.

How all this has happened is unclear for Russia closed its border with China in February; and Chinese have been careful when it comes to the implementation of precautions to prevent another outbreak though they did not seal the border. This lack of clarity regarding infections and the urgency with which the Chinese have moved, so soon after relaxing the Wuhan lockdown and the stringent closure of Chinese cities, raises larger questions.

These are also questions of importance for India as the country negotiates its nationwide lockdown and its application and aftermath.

Critical among the questions raised by the situation in China is how far can any “lockdown” produce a decisive victory in the battle against coronavirus? Is it only one of several lockdowns to be imposed, relaxed and re-imposed, varying in location, intensity and time in a compulsively globalised world? Is it fair for society to move in and out of lockdowns given the problems associated with the process – or is the lack of fairness inevitable?

These are questions which must especially be asked where any borders are present – interstate, intra-state, district or municipal, where lines of virus transmission are untraceable through a bureaucratic process. Arguably, the mobility of Chinese, like Indians, Americans, Europeans, Africans etc cannot be controlled beyond a point without a civic and economic cost. This must be acknowledged and factored in the fight against COVID-19 if a sensible approach to lockdowns is to be adopted.

The Suifenhe case and Chinese policy are instructive. Suifenhe is a border town of 100,000 inhabitants. It is a small part of old Manchuria. The town has no industry; but it is well connected by road and rail to other parts of the Chinese northeast, i.e.  the Heilongjiang province, to which Suifenhe belongs,  Jilin and Liaoning provinces. These were the sites of China’s early “modern” industrialisation, before and during the early years of the communist rule and are today home to massive state-owned enterprises given over to “rust”. These are locations of great towns unable to compete with the five-starred provinces of the coast and its hinterland, i.e. the “fabulous four” or the “new kids” beyond them. The populous and depressed neighbourhood of Suifenhe makes it important as far as any COVID-19 epidemic is concerned.

Suifenhe is important for other reasons as well, especially today. Chinese citizens bound south to Harbin come via this town from the Russian Far East “klondyke” commercial hub of Primore-Khabarovsk, servicing the gold, tin and diamond mines of Sakha, Chukotka and Magadan, dominated by the port of Vladivostok. Even without the railways, there are road connections across the border. Twenty-five Chinese COVID-19 cases, now spread over the country, came through the Russian border town of Pogranichny after a Moscow-Vladivostok flight. The hotspot Russian capital, with 3,000 cases at the time, was possibly the source of their infection.

The exact profile of these and the other 86 coronavirus positive cases in Suifenhe is unknown. Perhaps they were infected in China or perhaps the infection is linked to Primore-Khabarovsk, which is open to all of north east Asia and Alaska; or Sakhalin, the energy hub where at Iuzhno Sakhalinsk, Russians, Nepalis, Indians, Japanese and South Koreans hang out, munching sushi and momos (pelmeni).

However “certain” Chinese investigations may be, there will be no certainty about this. The only certainty in fact is that, whatever be the case, the infected stayed in Suifenhe for a moment too long. And for that exact reason, the little town on the Suifen river is to be shut down. The Chinese have sealed the border and shops are closing down and people are leaving if they can.

Significantly, the measures pay no attention to how the transmissions occurred in the first place, nor do they attempt to deal with possible sources in a complex context. This leaves broader problems. The Russians will not seal Pogranichny and trains carrying timber from the north will continue to ply and so will service personnel for the electric grid between the Russian province of Amur and Heilonjiang and those looking into the maintenance of the Eastern Siberia Pacific Ocean pipeline. Who will carry what and where will be in the dark.

For the Chinese, it is good enough to know that the infected were at Suifenhe. The ultimate cost of lockdown to Suifenhe’s handful of 100,000 citizens is also not attracting attention. Rather, China’s anti-COVID-19 phalanx has arrived with instructions to implement restrictions, build makeshift hospitals and beds, instruments etc. As China relaxes its lockdown, its plans for the future are clear from its response in Suifenhe. The Hydra of coronavirus must be hit wherever it rears its head. The containment package is ready to go. Beyond a point, no questions will be asked about where and how infections of COVID-19 came about.

Such a policy will have rewards that are immediate, tangible and visible. For it recommends itself to complex situations, especially those at any “border”. It commends itself given the stark statistics of infections and deaths in New York, Milan and Barcelona.  And, as is evident, most of the world, including India and barring the US and parts of Europe, has accepted the Chinese model in some form or the other.

But such a policy also raises questions: Should it evolve in the direction that the Chinese wish to take it in? Towards a situation that makes “lockdown” a permanent aspect of social and political process, with attendant costs: in the direction of exhortation to a hard edge to policy and greater vigilance without a deep sense of uncertainty, need for restraint after lockdown and circumspection concerning infection?

The sad fact is that COVID-19 is here to stay for a while and cannot, like any virus, be “defeated”. In dealing with its presence, what is important is that a firm eye is kept on populations that are healthy as well as sick, their material welfare and health is prioritised rather than the repeated infliction of “social emergency”.

Otherwise, in countries like India the best-intentioned policies can lead to terrible consequences, like the spectacle of migrants at Anand Vihar amply testified. Such oversight must be prevented. That is where vigilance and application are required.

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