China: Recovery Comes in Small Doses

Article By : Junko Yoshida

Some companies resumed work starting last week in China. It's been a slow start. But it's also a reminder that normal daily life returns in small doses.

When a disaster strikes, the hardest job for authorities in any nation is judging if and when the damage has been “contained.” Equally important is public trust. Do people believe their institutions are telling the truth?

When I covered the meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011, I recall that the situation remained precarious for a long time, because little was known. There were questions about how much water, in metric tons, was needed to contain the meltdown (including the distraction of so-called experts on Japanese TV wrangling endlessly over the semantics of the word “meltdown”), how the contaminated water could be treated, and then if creating an ice wall to block the flow of groundwater into the reactor buildings was actually effective.

Worst of all was the simple fact that most citizens did not trust the power plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), to be honest about the scale of the disaster. Large organizations — private, governmental, religious — all have an instinct for self-preservation, and we’ve seen one example after another of how that instinct overrides public responsibility and accountability. Distrusting TEPCO wasn’t cynical; it was practical.

Equally traumatic were interpretations of radioactivity data. The media and consumers alike kept watching the daily reports, assuming this was hard data and taking comfort in short-term dips. But not knowing how soon there would be light at the end of the tunnel made practically everyone very anxious.

This morning, I read a CNBC story that quoted Morgan Stanley analysts saying that “China’s economic growth in the first quarter could fall to as low as 3.5% if the spread of the new coronavirus is not contained fast enough for manufacturing production to resume to normal levels.”

The key operative phrase here is “if the spread of the new coronavirus is not contained fast enough.” Who in China, or in any organization anywhere on earth, is in a position to announce the “containment” of Covid-19? Let’s see the container.

If the number of deaths — or the ratio of deaths to infections — decreases from one day to the next, does that mean the disease has been contained? Or does it simply mean that the disease is less serious than we thought it was the day before?

If the number of infected reported daily in China remains pretty much the same for a few days, is that containment, or just a reporting delay?

I hate to admit it, but the 24-hour news cycle isn’t helping anyone. Daily data is immediately reported with little analysis. It’s important to note that “up-to-the-minute, blow-by-blow accounts of hard data can create mistaken impressions about the underlying facts, even if both the data and the accounts are accurate,” as John Allen Paulos, professor of mathematics wrote in a New York Times op-ed column.

Companies in China started getting back to work last week. ESM China, our sister publication in China, conducted an online survey among companies in the electronics industry in China and wrote:

As of February 10, China’s return-to-work rate was less than 30%. Only 18% of enterprises resumed work on February 3 (including remote offices); and 50% of enterprises resumed work on February 10; 19% of the companies resumed work on February 17 or longer, and 13% did not have a clear plan to resume work.

This is not far off from Morgan Stanley’s findings, which noted in its report Wednesday that while factories have started to come online, production had only reached 30-50% of normal levels as of last week.

The data about the effort to contain the Covid-19 outbreak looks encouraging, but if only a percentage of Chinese workers have resumed working thus far, does it mean that people are still concerned about becoming infected? Is the information about the containment accurate? Show me the container, they seem to be saying.

Contributing to the gradual return to work is that there is no such thing as a monolithic China. Every local government, afraid of spreading the deadly virus, is writing its own rules and regulations to restrict the movement of people and goods. Schedules for returning to normalcy vary widely. Lately, however, I’ve heard some loosening in these restrictions, pushed by a central government itching to get the economy back on track.

However, as of this writing, residents of Hubei province (population 58 million) — whose capital, Wuhan, is where the outbreak started — are still not allowed to leave Hubei. People who visited Hubei for the Lunar New Year holidays as the virus blossomed are still stuck there and can’t go back to work. Our own Fendy Wang who wrote the report lives in Shenzhen but she is still in Wuhan.

Echo Zhao, my counterpart in Shenzhen, wrote to us earlier this week: “When I drove to the office this morning, I was so happy to see traffic jams… I am not alone. Several friends in Beijing and Shanghai shared that they are excited to see traffic again.”

The hideous traffic about which everyone usually complains has become a source of joy. Below is a screen shot of a video Echo shot during her lunch break from her office in Shenzhen.

Light traffic viewed from EE Times China’s office in Shenzhen (Image: EE Times China)

Similarly, pictures of a workplace where co-workers are eating lunch together suddenly feel like newsworthy photos. The below was posted on a social media.

The caption reads:

“Don’t talk to each other!” That’s right, this is not a middle school exam room, but ZTE’s cafeteria. Only pre-made boxed lunches, four people can only sit on the table to ensure that they are more than one meter away from each other. There is a ‘proctor’ on patrol, strictly maintaining order, mainly to stop people from whispering.

This may not be the happiest description, but it conveys the feeling that people are glad to get back together, even if they have to keep their distance and button their lips.

Meanwhile big corporations and startups alike, companies in the business of making medical equipment in particular, have been working — excuse the expression — feverishly. They went back to work in early February, interrupting the New Year holidays.

Above is a picture from Browiner, a designer and producer of portable X-ray machines. Rather than transporting patients to X-ray rooms, Browiner’s portable system brings the equipment to the patient’s bedside. Full disclosure: my colleague Echo’s husband heads up Browiner. Stricken by a huge spike in demand, Echo’s husband has been living in a hotel, away from his family and close to his company, where he’s been working with no break in sight.

Echo confesses that even though she would normally take the subway to work, she feels safer commuting by car. Normal daily life is not remotely imminent. It returns in small doses.

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