Pandemic and Lockdown: A Territorial Approach to Covid-19 in China, Italy, and the U.S.

Xuefei Ren. Eurasian Geography and Economics. 2020.


The coronavirus pandemic has transformed 2020 beyond recognition. The Chinese city of Wuhan, the pandemic’s first epicenter, issued a lockdown order on 23 January 2020, desperately trying to contain the virus from spreading to other parts of the country. This draconian measure shocked the world and drew heavy criticism, especially from the West. Over the next 2 months, as the virus quickly spread globally, country after country resorted to a lockdown to contain the epidemic. Italy was the first western democratic country to issue a nationwide lockdown. The U.S. quickly followed suit and, state by state, governors have closed nonessential businesses and ordered residents to stay home. At the time of writing, half of humanity is under some kind of lockdown order.

As a global response to the pandemic, the idea of lockdown is problematic. First, it is hugely expensive. Lockdown has led to the shuttering of businesses and skyrocketing unemployment rates. Second, it exacerbates inequality. The ability to work from home varies greatly across different socio-economic classes. While the middle class can adopt home-based measures to work, the poor are less able to do so and many fall deeper into poverty. Third, it is not the most effective way to stop transmission, at least from the perspective of infectious disease control. Not one of the countries and regions that so far have managed to contain the outbreak—Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan—has ordered a nation- or region-wide lockdown. Instead, each has prioritized a relational approach by quickly mobilizing resources to conduct mass testing, contact tracing, and then quarantining and treating infected individuals. But the lessons from their experience have not been widely emulated, as most other countries have resorted to the territorial measure of lockdown without adequate testing and targeted quarantines. Simply locking down the population without other interventions will not take us very far.

Given its limitations, why have so many countries resorted to lockdown? How has it been implemented in different countries? Why have some places had more success with lockdowns and others not? China, Italy and the United States are three obvious cases to use to examine these questions. They are among the major countries hardest hit by the pandemic, and together they have locked down hundreds of millions of their citizens to contain the contagion. In each country, central and local authorities have enforced lockdown measures differently, and the uneven enforcement has led to different outcomes. This paper compares the lockdown-rollout measures taken by these three countries at the national level, and their enforcement of these measures at the municipal level. The analysis points to two major factors that have shaped the implementation of lockdown orders: central-local relations and the strength of local territorial institutions.

Sealing Off Cities in China

Even in authoritarian countries like China, it is not an easy decision to lock down a megacity of 11 million people. Wuhan’s lockdown was a last resort to control the damage unleashed by the delayed response from both the local and central government. By late December 2019, the coronavirus already had been spreading for weeks. Doctors in the local Wuhan hospitals tried to alert the public via social media but were silenced by the police. Hospital officials did not first notify the central disease control agency, as called for under the country’s public health emergency alert system, but instead informed the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission in late December 2019. Wuhan’s health officials, however, worried about their personal careers as well as the city’s tarnished image, were hesitant to declare a public health emergency. As more and more patients with severe symptoms rushed to hospitals, Wuhan’s mayor sought approval from the central government in early January 2020 to make such a declaration. The central government did not respond right away. On 22 January, Zhong Nanshan, a well-respected retired doctor from Guangzhou who nearly two decades earlier had led the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) campaign and who had recently visited Wuhan’s hospitals, recommended locking down the city. The next day, the State Council issued the official lockdown order.

China’s lockdown, it is important to note, was not nation-wide and its implementation was largely uneven. Some cities dutifully followed Wuhan’s example by shutting down businesses and production as they experienced spikes in infections. Other cities decided to shut down businesses out of concern for future reprisals if the situation worsened. Local officials in bigger cities—including economic powerhouses such as Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou—decided not to issue city-wide lockdown orders, confident that they could contain the virus with less stringent travel restrictions.

For those cities that did order a lockdown, local governments implemented blunt directives without room for interpretation. This is reflected in the Chinese word for lockdown—fengcheng (封城)—which means, literally, sealing off a city. In Wuhan, city authorities shuttered the airport, highways, and train stations, closed most businesses, suspended public transit (subways, buses, taxis), banned private cars, and ordered everybody not to leave their apartment except for medical emergencies. Such strict measures helped to slowdown the transmission but also caused a logistical nightmare: food prices shot up, farmers dumped their rotten produce, hospitals couldn’t restock medical supplies, and doctors and patients had difficulty even commuting to hospitals.

At the local level, “sealing off” a megacity is labor-intensive and requires extensive effort to enforce. But unlike other countries, China did not use either the military or the police to get the work done. Instead, local enforcement relied on a thick network of territorial institutions and authorities, such as resident committees (neighborhood-level government bureaucracy), wuye (property management companies/物业), homeowners’ associations, and government agencies of various sorts. Resident committees took the lead to make sure people stayed home. Wuye and homeowners’ associations were mobilized to guard entrances of each residential compound. In addition, many government agencies and public enterprises—city and district governments, the courts, tax bureaus, and even universities—asked their employees to “volunteer” to enforce the lockdown in their own neighborhoods. For example, in February, Heilongjiang’s provincial high court circulated an order to its 1000+ employees (including judges, law clerks, administrators, and security personnel), asking them to “dive in” (xiachen/下沉) their own neighborhoods and take on duties such as warning residents to wear masks and checking the body temperature of residents entering and departing their compounds. The same network of resident committees, wuye, homeowners’ associations, and government employees also were put in charge of tracing the infected. They quickly identified those who tested positive for coronavirus and, depending on the symptoms, sent the infected to temporary field hospitals or quarantine centers that had often been converted from hotels.

This system of neighborhood control and surveillance has been institutionalized through an ongoing experiment with “grid governance” (网格化管理). The idea is to divide a resident committee’s jurisdiction into smaller “grids” through GIS mapping, with each “grid” comprising a few residential buildings of 300 to 500 households. A management team is appointed to take responsibility of each grid, composed of representatives from district governments, street offices (jiedao/街道), resident committees, homeowners’ associations, and property management companies (Tang 2019). Invented initially in 2004 for preventing social unrest in urban neighborhoods, the “grid governance” system has proved to be highly effective in enforcing lockdown and tracing the infected.

China claimed a symbolic victory on 18 March 2020 when it announced that it had reached a point of “zero infection”—no new local cases across the country (Hernandez 2020). Three weeks later on 7 April, Wuhan’s lockdown order was lifted. But out of fear of another wave of infections, surveillance was continued at the neighborhood level through the same network of territorial institutions and authorities, facilitated by technology. In Beijing, for example, the surveillance started at the airport. Arriving passengers were sorted according to the districts where they resided or stayed, and then transported to their residences by buses furnished by district governments. Upon arrival, residents and visitors had to sign a form agreeing to self-quarantine for 14 days and report their temperature daily to both the resident committee and the property management company of their neighborhood. After the quarantine period, residents had to use an app to move about the city. They could only enter shops, restaurants, and their workplaces as long as they presented a green barcode on their app that signals good health and no fever symptoms.

The implementation of lockdown in China is largely shaped by the country’s hierarchical central-local relations. The decision to lock down Wuhan shows where power resides in the three-tiered political system: among the central, provincial, and municipal governments, the central government is the most powerful actor. Although city authorities exercise considerable discretion in their jurisdictions, power in a crisis of such magnitude is wielded by the central government. It was the central government that intervened quickly after the initial delay and scaled up the response to the national level. Soon after imposing the lockdown, the central government also removed both the mayor of Wuhan and the party secretary of Hubei province. Xi Jinping filled these crucial posts with two close allies. By blaming and sacking local officials, the central government shielded itself from criticism. It showed the country that the situation had been mismanaged by incompetent local officials and that it would be under control, guided by the central government’s steady hand.

Chiusura Totale in Italy

Unlike China, which swiftly imposed a rigid lockdown in targeted regions, Italy rolled out lockdown in piecemeal fashion amidst mixed messages from government officials that sowed great confusion. An effective lockdown requires early intervention, clear rules, and strict enforcement, none of which happened in Italy. Italy’s lockdown order always trailed the curve of infections (Horowitz, Bubola, and Povoledo 2020). The heavily politicized pandemic was exploited by different political parties to discredit one another. The fragmented enforcement of lockdown spotlights Italy’s volatile governments and competitive central-regional relations.

The Italian word for lockdown is chiusura totale, meaning “total closure.” The lockdown measures implemented in Italy, however, have neither been total nor successful at completely closing cities and regions. Rather, they have been piecemeal and porous. The first lockdown order was issued in a cluster of cities in Lombardy and Veneto regions in the north on 22 February 2020. On 8 March, it was expanded to all of Lombardy and 14 other northern provinces. But the lockdown order was not strictly followed in many cities in the northern region, and residents could obtain “auto-certification” forms allowing them to travel in and out of the locked-down area for work, health, or “other necessities.” The meaning of “other necessities” was unclear. The lockdown decree’s vague parameters spurred conflicts between Rome and regional governments—the latter was responsible for enforcing the order. On 9 March, the central government declared a nationwide lockdown, closing parks and banning outdoor activities that included taking long walks far from home. On 21 March, the central government closed all non-essential businesses and industries, adding further restrictions on the movement of people.

Italy resorted to lockdown because the government missed the window to intervene early. In the outbreak’s initial stage, both national and regional governments downplayed the risk of contagion. On 31 January 2020, Italy reported its first cases of Covid-19—two Chinese tourists from Wuhan visiting Rome. Italy declared a state of emergency that same day and suspended all flights to and from China, but it allowed thousands of passengers to reach Italy from China through connecting flights. Over the coming weeks, both national and regional politicians continued to downplay the risk of contagion. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte attributed the high number of infections in Lombardy and Veneto to the aggressive testing done in these regions. He also criticized the media for exaggerating the extent of the contagion. Large public gatherings continued. On 19 February, a major football match was held in Bergamo with more than 40,000 people attending. Bergamo later became another hard-hit city (Azzoni and Dampf 2020). In Milan, the mayor started the “Milan does not stop” campaign and re-opened many tourist sites.

Italy’s slow response reflected the country’s volatile political system and tense central-regional relations. Until its unification in 1861, Italy was a patchwork of independent city-states and republics. The central government consolidated power during the fascist regime of the 1920s. Its current constitution defines a complex system of territories including regions, provinces, and municipalities. Regions are devolved substantial power and resources. Each region elects its own president, and regional presidents are responsible for responding to public health emergencies. The hard-hit northern regions, such as Lombardy, Veneto, and Piedmont, are governed by opposition parties such as the right-wing League and Forza Italia (Forward Italy). The current cabinet, led by Prime Minister Conte, is built on an uneasy center-left coalition between the Democratic Party and the populist Five Star Movement, which do not get along with each other. Inter-party competition significantly fragmented Italy’s crisis response.

Different political parties politicized the pandemic to discredit their adversaries. Prime Minister Conte tried to shift blame over his crisis management to regional governors, by complaining that they did not respond to the crisis competently (De Cuia 2020). From the regions, opposition parties tried to use the pandemic to push their xenophobic and anti-immigration policies. Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, suggested quarantining every passenger from China. In hindsight, it was probably the right thing to do, but Salvini’s track record of promoting anti-immigration policies discredited his views (Nugent 2020). Other public health officials who recommended similar quarantine measures were also criticized for being supporters of the League. But League politicians themselves also sent mixed messages by downplaying the threat of the pandemic. Attilio Fontana, the League governor of Lombardy, compared COVID-19 with seasonal flu (Ferraresi 2020).

At the municipal level, the enforcement of lockdown was carried out by the police. But at the beginning at least, lockdown orders were not strictly followed. While infections surged, people still crowded bars in big cities, ski resorts in the Alps, and beaches in coastal towns. Many mayors have been urging central and regional governments to send more troops for enforcement. Some mayors went out themselves to piazzas, parks, and beaches to tell residents to go home; others used social media to urge people to stay inside (Giuffrida 2020).

The way lockdown has been implemented in Italy is largely shaped by its volatile politics. Central and regional governments, formed on fragile alliances of competitive political parties, blamed each other for lack of action. The central government tried to scale up the response but met with a backlash from regional presidents. Inter-party competition complicated the central government’s efforts to intervene at the regional level, as the northern region is ruled by opposition parties. As the death toll surged and Italy overtook China to become the country with the largest number of deaths from Covid-19 on 19 March, different political parties finally put aside their disagreements temporarily, while negotiating a coordinated effort to mitigate the crisis together.

Social Distancing in the USA

Compared to China and Italy, the U.S. has the least coordinated effort to tackle the crisis at the national level. The federal government has balked at assuming a leadership role to coordinate a crisis response, leaving state and local authorities to fend for themselves. In January and February 2020, President Trump significantly downplayed the pandemic’s risk and did little to prepare the public for what was to come. As infections exploded in Seattle and New York, and the virus began its march from the coasts to other parts of the country, the Trump administration had no choice but to address the issue. But its response so far has been fragmented and inconsistent. Collaboration among different levels of the government has been fatally inadequate. Those states with the highest numbers of infections, such as New York and New Jersey, have been urging the federal government to redistribute urgent supplies such as ventilators and N95 masks. Without centralized redistribution, states must compete with one another while bidding for critical medical supplies in the private market. The pandemic exposed the pitfalls of America’s dysfunctional federalism under the current administration, the ideology of small government, and partisan politics.

The country’s haphazard response to the coronavirus outbreak is reflected by an ambivalence toward lockdown orders. The lockdown order became a last resort for the states to slowdown infections so as not to overwhelm local hospitals. California was the first state to declare a “shelter-in-place” order, on 19 March 2020. From 19 March to 2 April, in a little over 2 weeks, 41 states issued “stay-at-home” orders. In the remaining states that have not done so, some local mayors have ordered residents to stay home. For the states that resist a total lockdown, all ruled by Republican governors, authorities stress the importance of the economy and call on individuals to act “responsibly” to minimize infection. Stay-at-home orders are showing effects in some regions, but the number of new infections keeps rising at a fast pace. In spite of the urgency, the Trump administration unveiled plans on 17 April to reopen the country. A few days later, some southern states announced that they would ease restrictions and allow some shops to reopen. But any proposal to reopen the economy would be disastrous without a strategy for broader testing.

Lockdown orders in the U.S. are enforced much less strictly than in China and Italy. In most U.S. states and localities, people can go for a walk, public transit still runs, private cars can be driven anywhere, and people can travel freely between cities, counties and states. In Chicago, the Illinois governor issued a stay-at-home order on 20 March and shut down all non-essential businesses. But people still could go to parks and the lakefront and run errands—both essential and non-essential. As the weather warmed up, the lakefront and parks were crowded with joggers, walkers, and cyclists. On 26 March, Chicago’s mayor ordered the closure of all public parks, the lakefront, and children’s playgrounds. But people can still go out as they will. Buses and trains are running, and ridership remains substantial in low-income areas where more residents rely on public transportation to get around.

As localities cannot strictly enforce lockdown orders and some places have reopened, governments—at all levels—urge citizens to take responsibility by practicing social distancing. The ability to practice social distancing, however, varies by income and where one lives. In my neighborhood, Hyde Park, a medium-density neighborhood adjacent to the University of Chicago, social distancing is well practiced. Runners, joggers and dog walkers politely avoid getting too close to one another on sidewalks. But in other neighborhoods, where houses are denser, sidewalks are narrower, and more residents have to go out to work and often by public transit, it is harder to distance oneself from others.

Overall, America’s haphazard response to the pandemic reflects the poor coordination among the federal, state, and municipal governments. At the federal level, the President refuses to take the leadership role to coordinate a national effort. At the state level, although most governors have rightfully ordered residents to stay home, such orders mostly came too late. As hospitals are already overwhelmed, state governors focus on securing ventilators and protective gear and do not have the resources to conduct broader testing and contact tracing, the relational approach that has shown great success in other countries. The President and state governors also clashed over who had the authority to reopen the economy. The President claimed that he had the authority but was soon criticized by many, who point out that the U.S. Constitution invests such power not in the President but in the states. At the city level, some mayors are in a competitive relationship with their governors and the two layers of the governments do not coordinate their crisis response. In general, lockdown in America does not amount to confinement to one’s house; rather, it is translated as social distancing in practice, an individual solution to the collective problem. There is no doubt that everybody should do their part to slowdown the spreading, but without coordinated state intervention, social distancing by itself is far from enough to mitigate the crisis.

Conclusion: Pandemic and Politics

Lockdown, once criticized as an authoritarian invention from China, has become the global response to contain the pandemic. A comparison of China, Italy, and the U.S. reveals that, their disparate political systems notwithstanding, all three countries defaulted to lockdown as a last resort. After delayed early interventions that could have slowed transmission, they found themselves with no choice but to order citizens to stay home. In China’s case, under its strict administrative hierarchy controlled by the Communist Party, local officials in Wuhan feared taking action without the central government’s approval. Instead of informing the public, Wuhan’s authorities silenced the whistle blowers and tried to cover up the outbreak. In Italy and the U.S., politicians—at the national, state, and municipal level—did not take the matter seriously and squandered precious time to get prepared. Across the three countries, lockdown is a last remedy—an expensive one—to control the damage caused by the government’s delayed response.

The comparison highlights how each country’s crisis response is shaped by its central-local government relations. In China, after the initial debacle, the response was immediately centralized, as Xi Jinping replaced local leaders with his allies and mobilized vast resources to keep the spreading under control. In Italy, the ruling and opposition parties politicized the pandemic for political gains and, by doing so, impeded a unified, national effort. In the U.S., in the absence of rational decision-making by the Trump administration, states and localities had to fend for themselves. Centralization has its limits but navigating a pandemic of this magnitude calls for a national effort. The lack of concerted government intervention in the U.S. has led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. On 11 April, the U.S. overtook Italy to become the country with the largest number of deaths from Covid-19.

At the municipal level, the implementation of lockdown reflects the different setup of local territorial institutions. In China, enforcement is carried out by a network of local territorial institutions, including resident committees, property management companies, homeowners’ associations, and “volunteers” sent by government agencies. Lacking such territorial institutions, Italy mobilized the military and the police, which turned out to be insufficient in some regions. In the U.S., there has been minimum enforcement to date—the federal government has no plan to send in the military (such as the National Guard) for enforcement—and local governments have limited police personnel to patrol neighborhoods. Instead, from the White House to city councils, authorities try to slowdown transmission by advocating social distancing and invoking individual responsibility.

Lockdown, as a state-spatial instrument for infectious disease mitigation, has huge consequences on racial, gender, and class inequalities. In the U.S., the ability to work from home during lockdown varies substantially across socio-economic strata. In China and Italy, where lockdown orders are being eased, only those who can prove healthy are allowed to go back to work—in China’s case, by showing a green barcode on one’s smart phone, or in Italy’s case, with a possible “green passport” based on antibody testing (Horowitz 2020). As micro-level data become available in the next months, we can more fully understand how lockdown, a last resort to contain the transmission, has introduced new layers of inequality and exclusion across a vast swath of humanity.