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The Doctors Are Joining Hands

Mar 26, 2020
  • Zhao Minghao

    Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University

With the total of confirmed coronavirus infections surpassing 300,000 worldwide, panic has set in. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that humanity may be facing a crisis not seen in 75 years. Especially worrisome is that a great number of patients are dying because they can’t receive timely treatment, even in advanced countries, such as Italy.

The United States is also undergoing a severe test. So far in the U.S., more than 20,000 cases have been confirmed, with nearly 300 deaths. President Donald Trump announced a national state of emergency, and New York City and the state of California have adopted strict response measures.

Things are likely to get a lot worse. According to experts at Columbia University, the pandemic is still in its initial stages in the U.S., and infections won’t peak until May.

In the face of this shared challenge for humanity as a whole, cooperation is without a doubt the sole correct option. Yet the road to cooperation hasn’t been smooth. Trump’s “Chinese virus” rhetoric has not only triggered the indignation of the Chinese government and general public but has subjected the Chinese community in the U.S. to discrimination and threats.

As noted by Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., questions about the source of the virus should be left to scientists. Malicious blame and racial discrimination are obviously preventing the international community, especially China and the U.S., from achieving the level of cooperation the pandemic calls for.

Yet we can’t and shouldn’t give up hopes for China-U.S. collaboration, especially at nongovernmental levels. It is inspiring to see people joining hands in the fight against the pandemic.

On March 13, with support from investment manager Himalaya Capital of Seattle, Washington, three Chinese doctors from the front lines of the country’s coronavirus containment campaign shared their experience with their American peers in diagnosing COVID-19 infection and treating patients with severe symptoms. They also shared their knowledge about pandemic control in major cities. More than 300 American professionals participated, including experts from the medical schools of top universities, including Harvard, the presidents of major hospitals across the U.S. and others from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The three Chinese doctors shared what the country has learned through its immense efforts, which came at a heavy price, in its tenacious fight against the coronavirus in recent months. They noted what they have accomplished, at the risk of their own lives, in the treatment of countless patients.

Knowledge about the novel coronavirus remains limited. The World Health Organization said it may take at least 18 months to develop a vaccine. What the Chinese doctors shared, therefore, was invaluable.

Doctor Cao Bin from China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing is a leading expert in China in the field of respiratory infections. His team’s research on the novel coronavirus and medications for treatment have attracted the attention of his counterparts from around the the world. He emphasized during the videoconference that the novel coronavirus is a “very dangerous” one: It not only lives longer inside the body of its victims but may also trigger cytokine storms, in which the immune system attacks all cells, resulting in serious damage to multiple organs of patients. It generally ends in death. Cao explained the treatment regime Chinese doctors have developed in great detail, placing greater weight on helping patients repair their immune system.

Wuhan, Hubei province, was the hardest hit area in China. Doctor Peng Zhiyong, head of the Department of Critical Care Medicine at Zhongnan Hospital, which is affiliated with Wuhan University, has with his team successfully treated hundreds of patients in critical condition, and their stories have circulated widely in China. Peng also went into detail on how to use ventilators in different types of ICU wards and presented measurable indexes regarding the use and withdrawal of ECMO heart-lung machines.

The Chinese government dispatched the country’s best critical care experts to Wuhan, they have had countless close encounters with death. What Peng shared is not only useful for his American counterparts in providing treatment for their patients. It will also help the them practice better self-protection.

Doctor Zhang Wenhong, head of the Department of Infectious Diseases of the Huashan Hospital, which is affiliated with Fudan University in Shanghai, has become a star in China. The medics he dispatched were the first to arrive at Wuhan, and he earned accolades for communicating epidemic control measures and precautions to the general public in plain everyday language.

Shanghai, a metropolis of 30 million people, has been under the heaviest pressure with regard to pandemic containment outside Wuhan. One thesis published in The Lancet predicted 800,000 infections in Shanghai. In fact, by mid-March there had only been around 350 confirmed infections there. Zhang explained how to contain the novel coronavirus in big cities, where inadvertent community transmission is easy, as well as principles of hospital management during the pandemic.

What the three Chinese doctors shared was warmly received and endorsed by the American participants. Bill Frist, who once served as majority leader of the U.S. Senate and chairman of the Senate Health Committee and is himself a physician, expressed gratitude to the organizers. Frist said if the experience and knowledge that the Chinese doctors shared could be applied quickly, many American lives could be saved.

In fact, the three doctors’ treatments of Chinese patients during the pandemic were informed in part by what they learned over the past few decades from their American colleagues. All had experience studying or working in the U.S. or other countries. Zhang, for instance, had been a visiting scholar at Harvard Medical School.

Exchanges between medical professionals are just one example of people-to-people exchanges between China and the U.S., but such exchanges are subject to increasingly strict restrictions under the Trump administration.

The pandemic is no doubt a political disaster for Trump. Taking advantage of the pandemic to create conflicts and hostility will be a bigger disaster. Stigmatizing China will in no way help the global campaign to contain the pandemic. In the early days since the outbreak, China received aid from across the globe, including from many American people and nongovernmental institutions.

China has marked some initial achievements in pandemic containment and is accelerating resumption of work and production across the country. It has sent medical rescue teams elsewhere and donated large quantities of equipment and materials to such countries as Italy and Iraq. China also stands ready to provide the U.S. with needed support.

The exchange between Chinese and American medical professionals should inspire the two governments to explore cooperation in containing the pandemic.

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