China’s cases of Covid-19 are finally declining. A WHO expert explains why.

Julia Belluz

Okay, so most of the measures used in China to stop the virus were traditional public health moves that are broadly accepted — and the draconian measures were rarer. Is there any sense of what in China’s toolkit was most effective?

Bruce Aylward

I think the key learning from China is speed — it’s all about the speed. The faster you can find the cases, isolate the cases, and track their close contacts, the more successful you’re going to be. Another big takeaway is that even when you have substantial transmission with a lot of clusters — because people are looking at the situation in some countries now and going, “Oh, gosh, what can be done?” — what China demonstrates is if you settle down, roll up your sleeves, and begin that systematic work of case finding and contact tracing, you definitely can change the shape of the outbreak, take the heat out of it, and prevent a lot of people from getting sick and a lot of the most vulnerable from dying.

The question becomes, then, how did they do that, and how much of it is replicable? Since coming back from China, everybody I talk to begins with, “We can’t lock down a city of 15 million people like China.” I say, “Why would you ever want to?” And I ask, “Does your population know x, y, z [about the virus]?” I learn they haven’t started with the basics.

So, No. 1, if you want to get speed of response, your population has to know this disease. You find any population in the West and ask them what are the two presenting signs you have to be alert to. What would you say?