Gung Ho: China and the Corona Virus

Chinese aid arriving in Italy, quoting the Roman poet Seneca
Chinese aid arriving in Italy, quoting the Roman poet Seneca . | Photo: Galileo Galilei Italian Institute

By Lee Ross

When someone is called “gung ho” in English it generally means enthusiastic and dedicated, often with military connotations.

This is ironic, because “gung ho” is actually Chinese and Communist in origin, meaning ‘to work together’.  Back in World War 2 a US Marine Major in China was liaison with both the Nationalists and Communists fighting the Japanese.  He noticed that Nationalist ranks were rife with corruption, soldiers were cruel to civilians, regularly stole from them and had low morale.  Among the Communists he noticed the total opposite: no noticeable corruption, soldiers were taught to respect civilians and everyone worked together both to drive out the Japanese and to take care of each other.  A Chinese Cooperative association’s motto summed up this spirit as gung ho, which he learned meant “Work together—work in harmony”. He brought this back as an ideal to the US, where the concept first spread through the Marine Corps…

Dr. Bruce Aylward of the World Health Organization team that visited China in February described the all-out effort:

I talked to lots of people outside the system—in hotels, on trains, in the streets at night. They’re mobilized, like in a war, and it’s fear of the virus that was driving them. They really saw themselves as on the front lines of protecting the rest of China. And the world…. They actually changed the course of a respiratory-borne outbreak without a vaccine, which was extraordinary…”

What China did:

  • Government and health officials notified the Chinese people and the World Health Organization about a novel coronavirus on December 31, less than three weeks after unexplained pneumonia symptoms were first noticed on x-ray
  • Completed a full genome of the virus within two weeks, releasing it to the world to help in the search for treatments and a vaccine
  • Imposed a 76-day lockdown of approximately 60 million people in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province, including shutting down both urban mass transit and nationwide intercity rail lines during the Chinese New Year, when families coming together create the largest short-term human migration on Earth
  • Mobilized medical personnel from all over China to aid Wuhan, which had lost many of its own healthcare workers to the virus in its early days.  Doctors and nurses from the Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army led by example, volunteering by the thousands
  • Built a complete hospital with 1000 bed capacity within a week
  • Built a second complete hospital with 1600 bed capacity the following week
  • Saw to it that no one needed fear about losing their job or income—paychecks still came regardless of quarantine
  • Through the above they saw to it that no one needed fear eviction or piling up of rent debt
  • Saw to it that testing and treatment were free, so no one needed fear medical bankruptcy due to the pandemic
  • Expanded production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), testing materials, ventilators and other medical equipment as if for war: from January 28 to March 31 there were increases of 20 times the production of PPE and 6 times of testing materials, with comparable increases in ambulances, blood gas analyzers, air disinfectant machines, and more
  • Ensured that food, fuel and other necessities of life remained in steady supply at normal prices, and offered financial support for small and medium sized businesses (which in turn if deemed essential and kept open were obligated to provide a safe working environment)
  • Created temperature checkpoints throughout society—especially transportation portals—to catch as many pre-symptomatic carriers of the virus as possible
  • Saw to it that everyone was tested at the first sign of symptoms, and if shown positive evacuated to separate quarantine away from their families (family spread of the virus being a prime vector)
  • Converted public buildings into temporary hospitals to house those quarantined, saving the main hospitals for severe cases
  • Traced contacts of everyone who tested positive to follow up with testing those individuals, regardless of whether they were symptomatic
  • Directed Neighborhood Committees to conduct daily rounds of every residence, asking if anyone was symptomatic, if any food, fuel, medicines or other supplies were running low, and to generally check in—anything needful was delivered within hours.  In these demanding and dangerous daily surveys 53 committee members were lost to the virus in the first six weeks of lockdown in Wuhan, 49 of them Communist Party members

What was this like to live through?  On YouTube you can watch the Chinese documentary One Month in Wuhan.

And not only all this to defeat the pandemic at home—as soon as different strains of the virus manifested in other countries, China sent brigades of coronavirus-experienced medical volunteers to help treat patients, as well as donated immense quantities of PPE, ventilators, testing materials and other supplies to 16 countries in Europe, 28 in Asia, 26 in Africa, 10 in the South Pacific, 9 in Latin America and even to New York City in the US itself.  China’s New Silk Road global trade project has a health component, the Health Silk Road, developing dozens of countries’ health infrastructure to enhance development and safe trade—the Health Silk Road has been expanded, moved to forefront priority and updated specifically for the novel coronavirus.

The pandemic had gone global and China rose as an ally to all humanity.  In beleaguered Italy the quarantine-empty streets were filled in gratitude with the sound of the Chinese national anthem, The East is Red.  Tedros Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General, described China as “setting a new standard for outbreak response” that heroically bought the rest of humanity six to eight weeks’ time to prepare for its spread.

This is gung ho in practice: “work together—work in harmony”.  This is human beings rising to a deadly challenge and working in global solidarity to end it—a People’s War on a deadly foe.

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