How political science can help the COVID-19 response: Insights from a study of China

5 August 2020

By Professor Jane Duckett FBA FRSE FAcSS (Edward Caird Chair of Politics, University of Glasgow, and Director of the Scottish Centre for China Research)

Political science’s role in the world’s COVID-19 response

Governments around the world have responded very differently to the pandemic because of the political ideologies of their leaders, because of the structure of their political systems and because of the capacity of governmental actors and the health systems they have created.

Political science research has an important role  in understanding how best to tackle pandemics like COVID-9 by rigorously analysing these different governmental responses internationally and the interplay of ideology, systems and capacity. It helps us to understand what policy measures governments have adopted and why, and what their socio-economic as well as epidemiological impacts have been. This knowledge is essential if we are to optimise government policies to future pandemics, because good policies need to take account of not only the characteristics of viruses and how they spread, but also how they intersect with the capacities of governments, and the impacts of those policies on  populations.

Political science research includes not only comparative cross-national studies but also detailed ’area studies’ of a single country’s policies and politics. While comparative studies show cross-national similarities and differences, deep area studies trace policies in detail and explain governmental responses and their impacts. They are particularly important for understanding countries unfamiliar to us or those whose policies are less accessible due to language barriers. China is one example.

China was, of course, where COVID-19 emerged and first spread. Much attention focused on its early phase, when the Chinese authorities were slow to publicly declare an outbreak. The world watched as Wuhan, a city of over ten million inhabitants, was suddenly ‘locked down’ on 23 January – no traffic allowed in or out of the city, people confined to their homes, and hospitals overwhelmed.

China’s approach to dealing with COVID-19 shaped responses all around the world. Although most countries eschewed its harshest measures, many moved to close borders, ‘lock down’ their societies and ramp up hospital capacity. But there has been little international attention to the detail of China’s early measures, their evolution over time, and their effects on society and economy.

Our project examines the Chinese government’s measures to tackle COVID-19 and their societal impacts using a combination of documentary policy and social media analysis. We have so far identified and begun to analyse the many policy documents the Chinese government has issued to deal with the pandemic. This has enabled us to begin to understand how the Chinese authorities moved to take control of the situation in late January and how their tracking, tracing and containment policies have evolved since then, as they have sought to contain more recent local outbreaks.

The Chinese response: top-down mobilization with some local variation

The Chinese central authorities issued over 800 documents between January and mid-April 2020 setting out how the epidemic was to be contained and mitigated. These show that as China’s top leaders publicly announced the epidemic and locked down Wuhan, they scrambled to establish a national coordinating taskforce that they replicated throughout the governmental hierarchy. A nationalist ideology that, under Xi Jinping has emphasised China’s power and his own personal leadership, meant that it was imperative for the authorities to seize control of the escalating epidemic. To do this, they used China’s centralized political system to direct a nationwide response based on the tried and trusted methods of mass mobilization. These methods relied on a capacity to direct the actions of people across the country, using the Chinese Communist Party’s organisational networks in almost all organisations and workplaces.

The authorities focussed initially on Wuhan and the province of Hubei, as well as on individuals who had travelled from there. Combining mass mobilisation of human resources with coordination across health, police, customs, rail and aviation authorities, the focus was not simply on health system capacity, or on testing and tracing, but first on identifying and isolating people with symptoms or with a Hubei travel history. Then, in a rapidly evolving series of guidance documents, the central government established protocols for tracing, isolating, then testing and – forcibly if necessary – quarantining people in designated facilities if they were suspected of having contracted the virus.

But the ‘Chinese response’ is more complex than a simple localised and then national lockdown. China is a territory larger than Europe; it is divided into 31 provinces, several of which have populations larger than Germany, Europe’s largest country. The national authorities established the overall approach to controlling the pandemic, coordinated the production and deployment of resources to Hubei from elsewhere in the country, and ordered all provinces to track down and monitor people with a recent history of travel in Hubei. But there was regional variation. Some local governments acted more quickly than others, and they varied in their use of non-governmental organisations and technology, and in the harshness of their policies.

The Chinese authorities’ measures have also evolved in the months since the outbreak to become more targeted. This is evidenced by how they tackled the June outbreak in Beijing. They again used a massive mobilisation of the population – from Communist Party members and officials, many of whom were ordered to go into local residential communities to oversee tracing, testing and quarantining measures, to health workers and local residents and community officials themselves. Much of the focus was first on identifying suspected cases: people who had been in the market where the outbreak seemed to cluster and those who had been in contact with them, with employers included in the task. But the closure of residential areas and strict quarantining of suspected and confirmed cases was more targeted than it had been in Wuhan, as were restrictions on movement in and out of Beijing.

Political science and interdisciplinary approaches to better pandemic response

Although other countries might not want – or need – to use the same harsh methods as China, and they may not have (or need) the same capacity for mass mobilisation, we might still benefit from understanding and assessing the impacts of other aspects of China’s response. Could we, for example, focus on identifying even suspected cases and quarantining them in special facilities? Such an approach in the UK would have avoided relocating patients from hospitals to care homes for the elderly. Which more targeted approaches work and enable us to avoid economically and socially costly lockdowns?

There is much that we still do not know about the outcomes of China’s centralized and draconian approach to containing the spread of Covid-19. While strict social controls appear to have limited infections and deaths outside of Wuhan – at cost to many people in that city – the long-term social and economic costs and benefits are still not well understood. Studying these, and then comparing them with responses elsewhere will help to optimise policies for the future. Political science’s understanding of governmental capacities and containment policies can then be used alongside clinical and epidemiological studies to tell us which of measures work best at controlling the virus, and with sociological studies to understand the differential impacts across the population in health and socio-economic terms. All this would help devise policies to tackle COVID-19 and future pandemics that that reduce deaths but also have the least damaging effects on economies and on livelihoods.

Visit the hub of the social science community’s response to COVID-19

Professor Jane Duckett, FBA, FRSE, FAcSs is Edward Caird Chair of Politics at the University of Glasgow and Director of the Scottish Centre for China Research. She is principal investigator of the project ‘Covid-19: Understanding the Chinese government’s containment measures and their societal impacts’, funded by the Medical Research Council and the National Institute of Health Research. For more information see the project website at: www.glasgow.ac.uk/covidchina.

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article: This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.