US can learn how to beat coronavirus from China’s best practices

Tribune Content Agency

Each time automotive consultant Sophia Lyu enters or exits the gate to her Beijing apartment building, an infrared sensor posted there measures her body temperature.

If it indicates a fever, guards will immediately detain Lyu and take her to quarantine.

“The Chinese run the country so tightly,” said Michael Dunne, Lyu’s boss and the CEO of ZoZo Go, a San Diego-based consultancy with expertise in Asian car markets.

The use of cameras everywhere in China, obsessive hand washing, constant temperature taking, strict adherence to social distancing, everyone always wearing a face mask, people given quotas of certain items so there’s no hoarding and restricting the number of workers allowed in a business, are just some of the things that make China markedly different in its battle with coronavirus compared with the United States.

Most recently Chinese officials closed the country’s border to foreigners starting midnight Friday to contain a second wave of coronavirus infections coming into the country.

Granted, China is a communist country where its residents are used to less freedom than U.S. citizens. Many of the practices enforced by the government there would never be tolerated here.

But some U.S. companies that have operations in China are tweaking and applying the best practices learned there to their U.S. facilities in an effort to get back to work but keep workers safe. After all, there is early evidence that the infection rate in China has slowed and the economy is restarting.

“Asia experienced SARS in the early 2000s and it really jolted them. So the coronavirus epidemic has steeled them for adversity and taught them ways to work around it,” said Dunne. “In the United States, my impression is that it’s light-switch-on or light-switch-off. We either work or we’re not working.”

Turn on the economy

The Detroit Three factories are not working. The automakers opted to shutter all North American assembly plants last week, except for a few that will produce essential medical equipment, and they wrestle over when to restart.

Ford Motor Co. has said it will restart some plants as soon as April 6 and others April 14.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said its North American plants will remain closed until April 14.

General Motors is still evaluating when it will restart.

Honda said it will restart April 7.

On Sunday, President Donald Trump extended the nationwide social distancing guidelines by 30 days until April 30 in a continued effort to get the pandemic under control.

But in China, many auto factories have restarted assembly lines and most are back to nearly full production.

What makes much of that possible is the Chinese culture and strict rules the people must follow, leaving nothing to chance, Dunne said.

Dunne lived in Asia for 25 years until 2015. He speaks and reads Chinese. Were it not for the pandemic, he would be traveling there every quarter.

He is in regular contact with his 42 employees at ZoZo Go’s three offices: one in Beijing, one in Hong Kong and one in Singapore. He has expert knowledge of the practices the Chinese are taking to get back to business.

“Asia has incredibly dense cities, but they’re being practical and pragmatic,” said Dunne.

‘Battle tested’

The rules there are strict and the Chinese are disciplined in following them because they faced the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in the early 2000s.

“(The United States) is a huge army with vast resources, but we’re not battle-tested,” said Dunne. “They have battled it. So now they say, ‘Can we be disciplined, work with it and manage it?’ “

Here is how they’re doing it in China. When Starbucks reopened its stores across the country, customers were allowed in only one at a time, Dunne said. An employee with a temperature gun took each customer’s body temperature at the door. If they passed, the customer could enter for carryout. More recently, the customers can sit down in the restaurant, but the chairs are spaced 6 feet apart, he said.

“In Asia, everyone wears face masks. If you’re not wearing a mask, you stand out,” Dunne said. “If you ask anyone in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea or Japan, absolutely, they would say Americans should be wearing masks.”

The Chinese are “obsessive” about washing their hands, he said. Dunne’s office in Beijing is still permitted to have only half its staff in the building at any time.

“They do things like that and that’s it, there’s no questions asked,” Dunne said.

No hoarding, and stand back

At the peak of the outbreak, the Chinese government issued quotas on certain items, Dunne said, such as each person gets only three face masks per day.

Large banners hang over city streets reminding people how to behave during a crisis to avoid mass panic with slogans such as “Do not make up rumors. Do not believe rumors. Do not spread rumors.”

And social distancing is now commonplace and expected.

“Even during breaks, people might go out and have a cigarette, hang out under a tree together. Now they don’t. They stand far apart,” Dunne said. “For Americans, that’s not our culture.”

Research shows social distancing is beneficial in saving both human health and getting an economy running again, but it has to be consistent. If the United States is to contain the outbreak long-term to restart the economy, social distancing will have to become the new normal, experts said.

In a March 16 study by the Imperial College of London’s COVID-19 response team, “The effectiveness of any one intervention in isolation is likely to be limited, requiring multiple interventions to be combined to have a substantial impact on transmission.”

Some Michigan businesses are enforcing social distancing. At one grocery store, Busch’s Fresh Food Market in Livonia, managers have marked the floor with red place-markers for customers to stand 6 feet apart. If a customer moves beyond the red “x,” a cashier will ask them to please step back and stand on the marker.

Dunne said it will take this first round of battle with the virus for Americans to change their behavior for good but, “We can’t stay at home forever. At the same time, we don’t want to go back to that previous level of contact. So is there a middle ground?”

Adapting the rules

Myotek has two plants in China where it endured four weeks of shutdown. It’s now running at about 90%, said Eric Showalter, CEO, based in Farmington Hills.

Myotek makes small lamps and fog lamps for many automakers, including GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. It also makes magnesium parts for those headlamps and has annual revenue of about $185 million, Showalter said.

In the United States, it employs about 300 people, 200 of whom work in Michigan.

“We transferred those (best practices learned in China) to our plants here,” said Showalter.

Those include:

—Taking workers’ body temperatures

—Asking sick people to stay home

—Establishing a regular and thorough cleaning process

—Wiping door knobs on a regular basis with alcohol

—Enforcing social distancing

“There were some things in China that the state was having us do such as taking temperatures several times a day and turn in forms with that information,” said Showalter. “That’s hard to do in the United States. But we’d have to adapt it for what we do here.”

Myotek has temporarily suspended production at its U.S. plants but before doing so managers also advised employees to get a 30-day of supply of any prescription drugs needed to help them avoid going out, Showalter said.

Assume you have it

At Meridian, both its plants in China are running at 100% again with all employees back on the job by the beginning of March, said Joe Petrillo, Meridian’s director of business development in Plymouth, Mich.

The company, a leading global supplier of lightweight cast metal parts mostly for the auto industry, also has operations in Eaton Rapids, Mich., Canada, Mexico and Europe. It has 2,000 employees worldwide, 400 in Michigan.

In China, “Life is starting to come back to normal. People are starting to get out. One plant is in Shanghai and the other is in Xinchang, it’s adjacent to the Wuhan area. But everybody’s back, everybody’s safe.”

Wuhan, a large industrial area, is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

For its operations stateside, Meridian has applied the due diligence it learned in China here.

—Proper spacing between employees

—Proper personal protection equipment such as gloves and face masks

—Thorough cleaning processes

—Any sick employee is put in isolation or sent home

“We’ve been a little fortunate because we went through it with our two plants in China,” Petrillo said. “From our history in China, it does come back. We know this is temporary and if we follow the right practices, things will get back. There’ll be a short term hit if you think of the financials, but we’ll get through this.”

Dunne agreed, likening this to wartime.

“But as Americans we figure out what to do,” said Dunne. “We’ll be in a state of adjusting and managing this thing for months, not weeks.”

Like the Chinese, the United States must be “hypervigilant” in applying the same practices of hygiene and social distancing China has, Dunne said, adding, “It’s not practical to stay home.”

Yet he understands the terror of the virus because it’s invisible and in many cases asymptomatic.

“So this is what they do in Asia, they assume everyone has it, including yourself,” Dunne said. “Then they say, ‘OK, how can we minimize this?’ ”


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