Interview with Li Jingjing on Covid-19 pandemic (tapescript)

Invent the Future editor Carlos Martinez interviews Li Jingjing, a Chinese journalist who covered the Covid outbreak in Wuhan for CGTN, about China’s coronavirus containment efforts. We discuss the current situation in China, the measures that have been taken to eliminate the virus, the broad mobilisation throughout China to help the people of Wuhan, the need for international cooperation to defeat the pandemic at a global scale, and more.

Tapescript interview Li Jingjing / Carlos Martinez (slightly shortened)

The following text is based on the recording as it was transcribed by

So how is the situation in China now in terms of the pandemic? Has normal life resumed? What changes are there compared to this time last year before the outbreak?

Well, our lives have returned to normal a really long time ago. Different provinces resumed to normal life in different periods, but probably since May everything got back to normal everywhere. This Christmas in Beijing, everybody was out on the street, celebrating. And we hadn’t seen that during the first several months of this year. Recently, there have been some cases popping up in different provinces in China in different cities. But most of them are basically imported, either from people who just recently came back from another country, or through the cold chain.

And you can really see how things are getting worse and worse in other countries. Especially when we entered winter imported cases were increasing. So, we were kind of worried. But the government responded very fast. When there were five cases in a certain district, the next days they tested over 1.2 million people in that place. And most people were negative. They found almost all close contacts, and put them into isolation centres for observation. If anyone shows any symptoms, immediately, the medical resources will be put into place to treat them. So they get well soon. So I think even though we have some cases now, nobody really worries about it.

So every outbreak or every potential outbreak is dealt with before it happens, as soon as there’s a case detected, then everyone is tested and they do the contact tracing and the isolation?

Early in het year people were still trying to figure out what’s the best method to do it. But now I think every city and every province has already got this format, how to deal with it. As soon as they find one case, immediately, they’re going to trace all the contacts, no matter how many there are. They go to all the places this person had gone to and test everyone who went to those places. Really no one is left out. Anyone who was just potentially a tiny bit exposed to the virus, gets tested and treated.

And people are using the QR code system then? So if you go into a public place, if you’re going to a restaurant, if you go to the library or whatever you use the QR code? And that’s normal now?

Yes, they started to do that in Wuhan. It is like what we use for WeChat, or Alipay. They have different colours, green code, red code, and yellow. Green code basically means you were never exposed, not having contacted anyone who has exposed and you have never been to high-risk regions. So as long as you have a green code, you can go anywhere you want. Red code means that you were probably infected or exposed, or maybe you went to a high-risk region. Then they can track that: where have you been? So if in your neighbourhood, in your building, there’s someone else who was infected, then you are you’re going to get a red code as well. It means you need to get tested to see whether you were exposed. If not, your code returns to green. Basically now, because of the new cases, everywhere we go, we have to scan this QR code. A restaurant will have my information, if they suddenly find some cases, they will be able to contact all the customers who went there. So that’s why we register, not for surveillance or something like that. I register so that if something happened, they can tell ‘you were probably exposed, you need to get tested’.

And how difficult is it to get tested? If you get a notification saying that you might have been exposed to the virus, do you have to travel a long way to do that? Does that cost money? Can you do it quickly? How long would it take to get the results?

It is very easy here, just waiting several hours. Normally, if there’s no outbreak, if you just want to do a task, go to other provinces or other countries, you can get it. You can just go to the nearby hospital, get tested, and get the result within 24 hours. But if there’s an outbreak they’re testing the regions where the new cases showed up. Like the districts in Beijing, where they’re testing millions of people. There they show the results within six hours. So that can be very, very fast.

And how long has all this infrastructure been in place? In terms of the QR codes, the apps, the testing? Was that put in place quite early into the initial outbreak?

I am trying to remember. That was in April when things already got so much better. And they were really trying to lift the lockdown. So once they lifted the lockdown, people were going to shopping malls, to public places. So then this new system was put in place. My story may be different from other people’s, because I was in Wuhan. So I started to use this in April. In other provinces, maybe later, or earlier, but I think quite early. In April or in May everybody in all provinces started to use this.

Could you tell us a little bit about why you were in Wuhan? What you did during the lockdown? What was the atmosphere like there in the city? How did people handle that?

I’m a reporter, so when I heard there was an outbreak, of course, I was scared, but my response was I want to go there to see what’s happening, I want to cover the story. So my boss allowed me to go. I went to Wuhan in February. I stayed there for 73 days and came back late April. To be honest, during that time, things were quite scary. Not just In Wuhan, but in general in China. Everybody knew there was unknown pneumonia, and there was the Spring Festival. So everybody was supposed to go home and united with their family and suddenly there was this lockdown. We were told: ‘you cannot do this, cannot do that, because it’s just dangerous’. Nobody knew how it was transmitted. So the atmosphere, in other provinces and cities was a little bit scary, people were worried. In Wuhan when you walked on the street, it was just so empty, all public places were closed. Nobody was allowed to move on the street. Only a few people could move around. So occasionally you could see an ambulance, taking patients to hospitals, you could see people in PP suits on the street, transporting patients, or delivering food and necessities to different households. So I was among the few people that could move around in the city. It was so sad and scary, like the scene from a movie about the Apocalypse. As a reporter I wanted to talk to everybody. I went to different hospitals, ICUs and makeshift hospitals. I interviewed a lot of nurses, doctors, and also spent a lot of time interviewing patients, recovered patients, and those who lost their family members. And those who just basically volunteered to do the job to deliver food for different communities and households. But I think I was lucky to witness the entire process, how things got so scary in the beginning, and then how the people really got together to fight everything, and things gradually getting back under control. The lockdown was lifted and everybody went back to the streets to shop, to eat food and snacks. During those three months, I just witnessed how the city survived from this horrible pandemic.

I think one of the things that here in the West, we found really difficult about lockdowns is the lack of support going to disadvantaged people who haven’t been able to get the level of support that they would normally have. And therefore, either they haven’t been able to stay locked down, or to survive at a decent level. And we saw that in India as well: migrant workers left with no support whatsoever, and who didn’t have a way of getting back to the villages. And there was a big spread of the virus because of that. In China, how have those situations been dealt with?

Putting a strict lockdown doesn’t mean you’re just isolating this region entirely. China overcame the virus because every citizen was involved doing his part. From reports in US media it was like Wuhan was abandoned and they were letting people to die. It was really not like that. Wuhan was trying to snap this transmission chain, so the virus would not go to other places. But they were providing all kinds of support to everybody. Here counts the importance of neighbourhood communities. Because in this kind of committee, probably 20 or 30 people were taking care of thousands of households, buying and delivering food. They went to every door to check different situations of each family. Some families have patients with other diseases like AIDS, or those who have to go to hospital regularly to do to use the dialysis machines, and so on. We did a big story about this one guy, the ‘delivery guy’. His job was to buy medicine for communities, and there’s some footage of him covered with all kinds of plastic bags. We have very convenient delivery services; we can order food easily. And those people also played a crucial role during this lockdown. So there were so many volunteers from society. Most of the neighbourhood committee members are CPC members. On Twitter all those Western politicians always attack CPC members, but they are just ordinary people who were working non-stop 24/7, during those three months of tough lockdown. And they were taking care of thousands of households to make sure the city was still running under the strict lockdown. The local people love those CPC members. Without them, they would have died in there. So everybody joined this war. And not just during a strict lockdown. People were doing this also nationwide.

It is the Chinese way. In the West people are still debating whether they should wear a mask, but here this is a no-brainer. All of us know we have to wear a mask. We do not want to infect others and do not wat to be infected. Everybody knows how to disinfect. When I get home, I will just spray alcohol, onto my soft shoes and my hands. Also when Wuhan was under lockdown everybody was trying to help inside the city, but also from outside the city. Top medics came from different provinces. Provinces donated the products, the food they are famous for or specialize in: dumplings from Shandong Province, rice from Sichuan Province. Even when the city was on strict lockdown, they never lacked any food. That’s why I say: we won this war because everybody was joining it.

So in that very difficult period of, I guess, two months, in spite of what obviously was a very difficult situation, everybody had food, people had their medicines. When people needed dialysis or hospital treatment, they received that. Yeah, that’s incredible. And you can compare that with the situation in New York City, where those kinds of people were queuing down several blocks on the street to get food from food banks, in itself a risk in terms of the virus to have so many people collected together waiting for food.

Yeah, here in China, you will get everything because some people will provide all those things to your door, you just open the door and grab the food here. And I just remember one story about a person in need of special treatment. I interviewed this Uyghur guy from Xinjiang. He had gone to Wuhan to do this kidney transplant. And so before the lockdown, he had just finished his surgery and had just got a new kidney. So he needed a lot of intensive care, but right then the lockdown started. And all the hospitals were packed with COVID-19 patients, it was dangerous. His wife was very worried. But you know what, in the end, his new kidney worked fine, he survived and moreover he got COVID-19 as well. He didn’t know how to get to the hospital or elsewhere, in the beginning you could get it from anywhere. And now he has returned home and lives a happy life. I actually asked him. He said: ‘community workers came to my door and knew my situation. Even though it was so difficult for them to manage that, they made sure to arrange whatever check was necessary’. During the time one of his doctors, just drove him, picked him up every day and took him to hospital to do certain checks and whatever he needed. He’s old, but he recovered from everything and has still got everything. He is from Xinjiang, but he says: ‘Wuhan is my second home, because they gave me a second life’. And he’s a Uyghur man, he is a CPC member. Well, some Western reporters and politicians are going to explode right now. But this is a true story.

China was able to send tens of thousands of doctors and other medical staff to Wuhan, more or less at a moment’s notice, and to build these incredible facilities, modern, fully equipped hospitals in a matter of a few days. How was it possible to mobilize resources at that scale so quickly?

This kind of thing is always possible here. In each province the government asked doctors and medics: ‘anyone who want to go to work there as a volunteer? Those people had to volunteer themselves, nobody could force them. Most doctors said: ‘of course I will go’. I interviewed so many medics who came from other provinces to Wuhan. When I asked them: ‘why are you here?’, they said: ‘that’s our responsibility as a doctor, this is the place I need to go to. I’m not thinking of getting gratitude from the citizens. It’s just my automatic response, If I’m a doctor, and I’m not going, I will regret this for my entire life’. That’s the answer I got from most medics.

In terms of how is it possible? I think maybe it’s really a very effective government. They’re able to work out an effective method within a very short time, with the best resources, the people or food, everything. They centralize resources and send them to the places where they’re most needed.

I think the incredible solidarity that people showed from different parts of China really runs against the stereotype that people have in the West about China and Chinese people. They think it is a strict authoritarian society, where Xi Jinping and the Communist Party tell everyone else what to do. And everyone else is just like robots and they hate their lives. So this idea of solidarity and not being motivated by material rewards, but by very human sentiments definitely goes against the stereotypes about China. What do you think accounts for that type of solidarity that we’ve seen during the coronavirus outbreak?

I think it’s never a problem for people here. We always think we should be united especially during this tough time. I think unity, helping each other is much more important than individualism. For example, things like wearing masks. It’s not as if someone forced us to do that. We know we are protecting people, and also protecting ourselves. Together, we can all get through this difficulty soon. So now we can party and travel again. Isn’t that good? When my friends and I read in het news that some people are shouting: ‘I’m not going to wear a mask, because it’s my freedom, I was born in a free land’, we think: ‘your freedom is jeopardizing other people’s freedoms. Because of that individualism you will never get back to normal. Is that what you want?’ So I think here in China, we really value this collectiveness. Like those doctors I talked about: at the time we knew so little about this COVID-19 and how serious it was. It was scary and anybody could die. Especially then, the doctors were facing the patients directly, although they were in serious danger. Even reporters were in serious danger. But nobody was backing off. Nobody knew what day you could come back, but we were going to stay there until this battle was finished. I told my parents: ‘that’s what I’m going to do’. I was scared, but part of me was thinking, this is something a journalist should do. Because I had the chance to help the people. One doctor came from Liaoning province and she said: ‘you know what, I didn’t have the chance to help the people during SARS. I have to do it during this COVID-19. And one nurse, she was working eight hours every day in this makeshift hospital. She was providing more than medical checks, psychological treatment of the patients. So she was working so hard and after things got well and patients were healed, she could go back home. And she chose to stay, saying: ‘there are still severely ill patients in hospitals. I need to go to ICU to help those patients.’ When the whole thing was finished, she had a health check and it was found that she had cancer, so she had put herself into danger, that was a sacrifice.

Well, so back in February when the situation in Wuhan and Hubei was very bad, it hadn’t become bad in the West yet. I guess there were a few cases in Italy and in Spain. But it felt like it was China’s problem at that time. And quite a few analysts in the West were saying: ‘you know, this virus, it could be China’s Chernobyl, you know that the CPC is going to lose its popularity, it’s going to lose its legitimacy, because of the pandemic’. Is that what’s happened? And what do the Chinese people think about how the government has worked to contain the virus?

Probably this is going to disappoint a lot of Western politicians, but it made the people here, trust and love the government even more, this outbreak. Maybe in the beginning, it was chaotic. And especially in Wuhan, when so many people were infected and they didn’t know what they had got. And many doctors didn’t know what this was, and how to treat them. So there was a tendency of some people who were just not satisfied with what the governments were doing. But I think it quickly stopped, once they realized that it was a brand-new unknown pneumonia and even the doctors and nurses didn’t know how to deal with it. And the question was: ‘Should we put on a lockdown? How do we provide necessities to people?’ But as soon as they figured out how serious it was, and how it was transmitted between people, all the methods were put in place quite fast and quite effectively. When the lockdown was announced on January the 23rd, it was just two days before Spring Festival, and the lockdown was put in place, right on time. And then the New York Times and some media were saying: ‘This is inhumane, authoritarian, they are taking the people’s liberty away’. But you have to know it was so bad in Wuhan. And if they didn’t stop it, the largest human migration was going to happen during Spring Festival, and then the virus would spread to the entire nation, a disaster. The government was updating all the time, in a quite an effective way. After that the people had a lot of trust in the government and the CPC. Right now we have more small outbreaks in some cities, but nobody is really worried because we know the government knows how to deal with it.

Human Rights Watch criticized those, what they called ‘human rights violations’, in China at the time, but the lockdown lasted only two months. Meanwhile in Britain, it started in March. And now, at the end of December, we’re still under quite heavy restrictions. And because we’ve got 30.000 cases a day, the restrictions will probably continue until at least March next year. So we’ll have had ‘our human rights violated’ probably a year or more. But Human Rights Watch don’t have anything to say about that.

I guess one of the things that you hear not so much from the media anymore, but from kind of anti-China trolls on Twitter, is people saying: ‘Oh, well, China’s just lying about the statistics, they haven’t really handled the pandemic at all. They just made up the numbers. What’s your response to this idea that the government’s just lying about the numbers?

Infectious disease is something you cannot hide. So well, haters are always going to hate. China in their eyes is just inferior. They cannot accept that China is doing much better than the superior Western democracy. But if they don’t trust it, let them take a look at our life. What are we doing? We are partying, we are travelling everywhere, our economy is growing. We’re probably the only country where the economy is growing now. So that’s the reality. And then about the numbers. I know there are a lot of people with doubts about the numbers on Wuhan. I was there and interviewed a patient. His parents died in early February. And because it was so early, and it was chaotic, his parents were not listed. But he told me, during the two months into the pandemic, he got a lot of calls from different departments of local communities, government hospitals, everywhere, constantly checking, asking the information on his parents. Where did they die? What day did they go to hospital? Who was in charge? There were locals confirming all the details of those people who died, but hadn’t got the time to list them into the numbers. So in the end, by late April, his parents were listed. Then the numbers were revised because during the whole two months, there were people doing this job confirming the details. And there were people who had just died naturally. And I asked him: ‘well, in the beginning, your parents were not counted in the numbers. Were you frustrated by that?’ And he said: ‘No, I totally understand because it was so chaotic. In the beginning, all the doctors, all the nurses were busy saving patients, them who still got the chance to live and community workers were saving people locked into their apartments by delivering food, they were battling with this virus. So it’s understandable that they didn’t have the time to count who precisely died of COVID-19’. And he was a person who actually stayed in hospital, because he was infected as well and who had seen that they didn’t even had the place to put the bodies apart. But he recovered. Eventually the list of numbers was revised. So that’s very fair, what a patient who recovered told me.

That’s interesting, because China is the one place where they revise the numbers up. In Britain, they changed the way of counting. So that it only counts as a COVID-19 death if you die within 30 days of getting diagnosed. So if you get diagnosed with COVID-19, and then you die six weeks later, it’s not recorded as a COVID-19. Death.

I hope everyone’s learning that international cooperation is extremely important to address this pandemic, and also future public health crises. How has China been helping other countries to cope with the pandemic? And related to that, in what ways did other countries help China during the crisis in Wuhan?

I think according to the official information, China already helped 83 countries to fight this pandemic, donating masks, test kits, or intubation machines or whatever. Countries including Serbia, Russia, Pakistan. I think America was among those 83 countries as well. And they already sent medics to several countries as well. To Serbia, or Cuba, to help by providing knowledge. Those were doctors who had already been fighting in Wuhan. So they got the first experience of how to deal with this. And during the crisis, there were so many countries helping China as well, either by donating masks, or donating food. Mongolia showed dramatic support. The leader of Mongolia decided to visit China just to show the support in person. So he met President Xi Jinping. And to support Wuhan, he also donated thousands of sheep. The nurses and doctors that I had interviewed in Wuhan, posted on a WeChat account how they were eating this sheep soup and eating all this lamb kebab. Counties donated almost all the masks they had. So that was dramatic support. I remember Japan also showed quite a lot of support. So during that time Japan-China friendship got so much better, because we saw footage of people with a box on the street, asking people to donate masks. So during the worst time, the people who showed you support are the ones that you know are your true friends. And you’re going to remember forever.

Now, the Chinese vaccines are starting to be rolled out in Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Argentina and some other countries. And there’s clearly a big focus on developing countries, because I think that the government has said that developing countries are going to be a priority for receiving the Chinese vaccine. Also, the Chinese vaccines are much cheaper than the high profile, western ones. And now, because of that, the big story in the Western media is suddenly ‘vaccine diplomacy’. You know, the idea that China’s using its vaccines to try and kind of dominate or subjugate or exploit other developing countries. Do you have any opinion on that?

It’s always the same: first, it’s panda diplomacy, then it’s mask diplomacy. Now, it’s vaccine diplomacy. So no matter what you’re doing, when you are doing something good people are still going to judge you. I remember when, during the worst time in Wuhan we needed masks the most and the masks expired every few hours. We didn’t have enough for all citizens. In China we have a large population, 1.4 billion. So China stopped this export of masks and the sale of certain medical resources to other countries. And I remember some media were criticizing China for this. And then during those months, all the factories were working non-stop. Also factories which had not made masks or protective suits at all before COVID-19. They all changed to make those. So we got a lot more medical supplies. Finally we had enough and were able to help other countries. The government realized, okay, we are better now and we have more supplies, so we can help other countries which are needing it now, because it is getting worse. So they decided to help other countries. We were helping them and they still judged us.

But well, I don’t think the government cares what they are saying, and at least Chinese citizens don’t care what they’re saying. Because helping other countries and people in desperation is the right thing to do. We had been through that worst time so we knew how it felt: as if the world was coming to an end.

You monitor the Western media, you have probably seen there’s been a lot of racist anti-Chinese sentiment generated particularly by right wing politicians in the West, who want to blame China for their own failure to contain the Coronavirus. Do people in China see this? Do they talk about this? What do you know about their opinions about this?

I think most Chinese know that. It’s quite frustrating, most Chinese realize, well, we are the ones being discriminated against. So we’re definitely not happy. We have so many international students in other countries. Many Chinese work in other countries, and they are living through a tough time. But also those Asian descendants that were born in America, in Britain, just because they got an Asian face they also got just discriminated against. Very unfair and sad. Do you really have to blame a whole race, or whole nationality for a certain disease? The first AIDS patients were detected in America. Did anyone blame the whole of America for AIDS? Did anyone blame America or Mexico for H1N1? It’s not right. But things got so much better here. We’re living a comfortable and normal life. So most people don’t care much about it. Right now when we are looking at the overseas situation, other countries look so much worse. So I will speak for myself, I’m not sure about other people, but I don’t really care about it, because our lives are so happy and back to normal now.

It’s sad and it’s wrong, but it’s probably quite predictable, a manifestation of new Cold War environment, in which, you know, the US and its allies are trying to protect their leadership upholding an imperialist world system, which has been in place for hundreds of years, and that China threatens. So anything that makes China look good or makes China seem attractive, especially as a socialist country, especially as a country that’s run by a Communist Party, especially as a non-white country as well, is considered a big challenge. And you know, it’s very predictable and almost inevitable that there’ll be some racism connected with that sentiment.

You’ve lived in the West, I think you’ve lived in Britain, right. And you’ve got some understanding of what Western society is like. Do you have any advice? What do you think other countries, especially countries in the West can learn from the way that China has managed the pandemic?

I don’t think other countries need to exactly copy everything China does, because apparently every country has their own situation, their own culture. The community system works here, and it probably cannot be copied by Western countries. But you can take a look at what may be very useful like going from door to door to really check everyone, categorizing into four different kinds of people: confirmed patients, suspected patients, close contacts, and patients with a fever. These four kinds of patients are provided with four different treatments. Some patients will be sent to hospitals, hospitals with ICUs, and mild symptom patients sent to makeshift hospitals, and fever patients and close contacts will be sent to quarantine centres. Through those different treatments they will be treated well and they won’t overwhelm the medical system. You cannot let close contacts and fever patients stay at home, because they’re going to infect more people there. During the quarantines, they’re going to test those people four times, but also provide food, everything. If someone shows symptoms, they’re going to transport them immediately to hospital or a makeshift hospital. So they are not leaving anyone at home even if they have only potentially been exposed. They won’t let this disease spread further within households. That’s the way to stop this transmission chain. And also for the food and groceries. I think some countries will probably think about their own plans. You have to deliver food, medicines and medical care to different households during the lockdowns. If you just leave people at their homes without providing any help, they’re going to die, not from COVID-19, but from other things, hunger, or not enough medicine. The third thing I think most important is: just unite, put a mask on, be a volunteer, drive patients to the hospital, or help to deliver food. As long as we all pull together this thing can be conquered. I look at it here, we conquered it, and our life went back to normal. The good thing is, they are always changing, upgrading their system, there are solutions, there’s a problem, they solve this problem, and come up with a better plan. We’re not debating whether we should wear a mask, we just think about a better way to do things.

In terms of the doctors and medics during the three months in Wuhan: seven times they upgraded their diagnosis and treatment schemes. The city, the government, the medical staff, they are always updating based on the information they have got. It took them three months. Other countries have already been seeing this thing that China went through for almost a year. Why are they not upgrading their methods, their solutions?

I can definitely relate to that here in Britain. For example, I can go to the shop now or I can go to a cafe and get some takeaway food. But I wouldn’t have to scan a QR code. So even if there was an upgrade link to that shop or to that cafe, no one would contact me. Even if, for example, there was a case detected at my children’s school, and we got a notification of that, I wouldn’t be able to have a COVID-19 test unless I had symptoms. You can’t get tested unless you pay privately for it, or unless you’ve got symptoms. And then I know people who tried to get tests, and they look on the app to see where they can go. And they’re being asked to go like 100, 150 kilometres to the nearest available test centre.

During the whole outbreak in Wuhan, nobody had to pay anything. They didn’t have to pay for the treatment they got in the hospital, no matter what that treatment was. They found five cases in one district and they tested 1 million people in that district without asking for any money. Because that’s needed. Those close contacts and fever patients who were sent to quarantine centres did not have to pay for the accommodation or the food. I think the government covered all the other costs. So the patients were willing and able to go to go to those places. Many patients were just migrant workers without an ideal financial background. So if they got a COVID-19, they definitely would not have had enough money to get a treatment. But none of them had to pay. I saw them when they were discharged from hospital, and they were crying in front of all the managers and saying: ‘you really saved our lives. Without this kind of hospital, I would just die probably on the street or at home’. I think what China did was really great. You will find that when you ask anybody.

Li Jingjing, I want to thank you for giving us a lot of your time, for sharing your experiences which has been really fascinating, and I hope it will provide some useful ideas for other people watching.

Thank you, thank you for having me here. I would love to help more people. Because I saw probably the worst outbreak in Wuhan. The knowledge we got is precious and, I think, useful for other people who are still suffering from this pandemic. We would like to help people in need.

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