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Expat in China says town boundaries will help Northern Ireland get out of coronavirus lockdown


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Stephen Graham with Christina Wu Graham and their sons Patrick and Clark

Stephen Graham with Christina Wu Graham and their sons Patrick and Clark

Stephen Graham with Christina Wu Graham and their sons Patrick and Clark

A man from Northern Ireland living in Shanghai believes towns here should develop their own boundaries in a similar way to China as it emerges from the Covid-19 lockdown.

Stephen Graham (58), from Lisburn, moved to China to teach English in 1996 and has been living in the country's largest city since 2001.

Since then, he has set up Graham Education Business Consulting Company, which helps young people learn English before travelling abroad to study.

With the UK passing the peak of the virus, Boris Johnson will this week outline a roadmap to reopening the country.

Stephen has watched how China has moved to lift its restrictions in recent weeks, amid a sense of real caution.

Reflecting on the staged approach China has introduced as the country attempts to return to normality after its 12-week lockdown, Stephen said that Northern Ireland could adopt similar measures when the coronavirus regulations begin to phase out here.

Along with his wife, Christina Wu, from Shanghai, and their sons, Patrick (15) and Clark (11), Stephen has been living under tight regulations since the outbreak of the virus.

Last Monday, schools in Shanghai began welcoming back students in fourth form and upper sixth, while on May 6, other classes will return before primary and secondary schools open their doors on May 18.

However, with strict social distancing measures in place, Stephen explained that if one pupil developed symptoms of coronavirus, an entire school would not have to shut - just that particular section.

According to Stephen, another Chinese example Northern Ireland could learn from when the time comes to end the lockdown regulations is to look at the boundaries the government has put in place around sections of Shanghai.

Living in a "Dunmurry type" area of the city, Stephen stated that only those living in that block can move freely within the cordon.

Over time, the boundaries will begin to expand and, using Lisburn as an example, Stephen said it has resulted in communities looking after one another.

He stressed, however, that this all comes down to the information that is provided to the public.

"China has been great in that they can tell you exactly how many people have had the virus in Shanghai, how many people are in hospital and how many new cases there are," Stephen said.

"When I check Northern Ireland, they tell you how many people altogether in each area, but I couldn't find how many people have died in Lisburn, for example.

"They tell you that Belfast is the worst hit area and Lisburn and Armagh are maybe second, but if there was more detailed information about the areas, people would be then more aware of what's happening and which places to avoid.

"People could be confined to the boundaries of the city of Lisburn and you could go wherever you want in the city, so it's each area looking after themselves. That's what China has done.

"Shanghai was practically on lockdown and you couldn't get into the city for the first four weeks, no matter where you came from. They just blocked all roads and motorways.

"In Wuhan, they locked down the Hubei area and wouldn't let people out. Unfortunately, the day they decided to lock it down, a lot of people had already left the day before because it was Chinese New Year.

"These are the people who spread the virus worldwide."

Over the last three weeks, people have returned to work in stages in Shanghai.

Using a government-sanctioned QR code, citizens in the city can gain access to certain areas depending on the colour of their code, which is available on their mobile device.

If the QR code is green, that person can use amenities such as public transport and restaurants within their boundary, however, if it is yellow or red, movement becomes much more restricted.

"Everybody wears a mask," Stephen continued. "If you go out in public they're all still wearing masks.

"I live in a rural part of Shanghai and people are wearing masks when out on the streets, even though there's very few people there.

"People are taking the underground and public transport, but they're wearing masks.

"People are still very cautious and I'm guessing that will remain so for the next few weeks until they have the confidence that they can do it without a problem.

"That QR code allows you to go on public transport, it allows you to go into restaurants and allows you to travel.

"If you have been in an area that is suspected of having a virus, you might get a yellow code, which restricts your travel. If you maybe had the virus, you will get a red one."

On hearing the news that a minority of people are beginning to flout the lockdown regulations back home, Stephen said that complacency is one of the biggest dangers.

Referring to China's progress in flattening the curve, he explained that over the last five weeks, most confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country are people coming into the nation.

"If you've worked hard or tried hard to keep the system of lockdown, quarantine, isolation and social distancing for this length of time, it would be stupid just to let it all go and then have to do it again," Stephen continued.

"It really is a step by step approach to all of this.

"China is lucky in that these past four or five weeks, there has been very limited person-to-person contagion.

"Nearly all of the cases of the virus have come from outside China.

"About a month ago, the Chinese government said they would not accept anymore foreigners coming back into China - only Chinese passport holders.

"Anybody that does arrive back into the country will immediately be tested at the airport, they're sent to a government-run hotel, where they are isolated for two weeks and they are checked a couple of times with doctors at hand.

"After two weeks, if they're free of the virus, they can go home. All of these procedures are in place to make sure that there are no more viruses coming into the country."

Meanwhile, as part of his role as head of a group called 'Friends of Northern Ireland in China', the English teacher has helped raise €20,000 to help buy personal protection equipment (PPE) for those who need it back home.

The initiative was organised by all of the different Irish groups living in China and a share of the funds will be distributed by the Northern Ireland Bureau to those who need it here.

"The idea was started by Fiona Sheehan, who is president of LeCheile, which is the Irish community group here, and supported by Therese Healey, the Irish Consul General, and the leaders of the other groups," Stephen added.

"We just asked for donations and within a week, we had received €20,000 from the community here.

"The PPE will be divided between places in or around Dublin and Belfast."

Belfast Telegraph