Najib explains the urban grid system and Marzia shows how it worked in her community.
Marzia, we have heard that in [the PRC] one element that was very effective was community engagement, especially at all levels, not just in townships and cities, but even province wide.
What was your experience of the community helping you as a resident, as an expat living in Beijing in these early days of the COVID-19 spread? And how do you think that was effective or useful?
Marzia: As soon as the emergency was declared, the community got immediately organized for two purposes. One is to support the people in the neighborhood, and two is to try to contain the spread or to understand the movements of the people in the neighborhood. There were people from the community committee that were helping with the basic supplies like water or telling us where to buy food. Then there were people that were supposed to help with the communication and information on the virus. We could indeed get a lot of support, especially on practical issues. It was very well organized from the start.
Najib: Communities are critical battlegrounds for preventing and controlling COVID-19 early detection, reporting, and reducing transmission risk are the preventive tools that can be employed at the community level are most effective. An example of community-level approaches is the community grid. The local government made use of the urban grid system extensively, in terms of testing, treating, and tracking COVID-19. The system organizes neighborhoods into several grids, each managed by a grid team. These team members collect information on the needs of residents. They conduct health education on how to prevent COVID-19. They monitor residents’ body temperature daily, which many of our developing member countries did to test for fever for a risk of COVID-19, so you can eventually do testing. Grid teams disinfected the surroundings. They helped conduct surveys which are really, really important in terms of tracking people who are deemed at high risk and who have been ill, and also mass testing whenever someone may have tested positive for COVID-19. Grid teams are also responsible for buying and delivering supplies and necessities in communities, including medicines, especially for quarantined households. Grid teams in [the PRC] use electronic information to accurately and quickly locate areas of high risk and enable orderly distribution of prevention and control materials in order to reduce the impact or spread of a crisis.
Misinformation about infectious diseases is probably one of the most dangerous aspects of disease prevention and control in a pandemic. That’s why public health education is so important.
Public health education and health promotion in communities are usually done through information and education drives. Many of these can include something as simple as mobile loudspeakers making the rounds to just remind people to wear face masks, wash their hands, practice social distancing, ensure ventilation, make sure that you don’t cough in public and observe etiquette. And also, just the simple things as providing posters in neighborhoods, especially those at high risk. Representatives in communities are also very important because they compile the concerns of the community and provide a feedback mechanism for public opinion. Public opinion messages help shape key messaging in pandemics. One way to quickly and easily gather opinions and key messages and areas of concern are social media and different types of mobile apps.
We must show that when everybody follows the rules, the whole community can better protect themselves and their loved ones. We are only as strong as our weakest link.
Marzia, you were living in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in Beijing. What was your experience of the communication and education on COVID-19 happening through social media and mobile applications in [the PRC]?
Marzia: We all know for this type of pandemic, tracing is one of the critical aspects for public health and we used the WeChat application. We had to have a QR code that was either green, amber, or red and that would determine where you could go. Now this QR code was based on your personal data and on the results of the PCR tests. The number of PCR tests needed depended on the level of risk where you lived. So when my neighbor became medium risk, we were asked to take a PCR every day. It was extremely well organized. On every corner there was a white tent for people to go and take the test. It was very convenient. Mostly everybody had a tent under their building, so it became part of the normal life. The testing facilities were open from early morning to late evenings.
And then once you took the test, that result within few hours would go into the WeChat app and that would either confirm your green status or raise an issue or, say, that if you are positive then you become red code and then you go into the into quarantine.
But one small issue was the WeChat app was in Chinese and the health workers have difficulty sometimes in spelling foreign names. And imagine my name is not easy for Italians to pronounce. So “Mongiorgi” was kind of complicated for them. So sometimes they would give us their device and we would type in our own name and this was done for many of the foreigners. But the tracing app was good, was very well organized. Sometimes there were some glitches. So you become amber without reason, but then it would be sorted out quickly within a few hours. My experience in terms of the app was very good and made me feel safe because I knew that they knew where the cases were.
Najib: Were the testing and treatment free? Was it easy to access? Were the apps easy to use? And in your experience, is that a very important issue when dealing with pandemic on a day-to-day basis?
Marzia: The testing facilities were everywhere. They made it easy because we had to do it every day in some periods. But there were enough places in the city where you could go. We had one near our apartment and then one near the office. And then sometimes I missed the working hours of the one near my place. And so we went to the one near the park. We didn’t have to pay. We just walked in. And if you choose the timing well, you didn’t even have to queue. There were also some testing facilities where you had to pay very little. The QR code app for tracing of COVID-19 was really easy to use. It was demanding in the sense that everywhere you went you had to scan. And then you have to show the person at the entrance of the building or a shop that you were green and that had two purposes. One is to know where you were going and then two is to show the person of the building that you were allowed to go in. I didn’t find any difficulty in using it. And was very simple, very effective. And it became part of my daily routine.