[Big Read] Wuhan waits for a turning point

The new coronavirus has not yet peaked but is already having serious impacts on the people and businesses of Wuhan and China. Zaobao correspondent Yang Danxu looks at the micro and macro effects of the epidemic, from personal accounts to medical and economic forecasts, in this big read on Wuhan.
Medical staff at a hospital in Wuhan, 5 February 2020. (Xiong Qi/Xinhua)
Medical staff at a hospital in Wuhan, 5 February 2020. (Xiong Qi/Xinhua)

“If we’d known it would turn out like this, on the day of the lockdown, anyone would have wanted to leave.”

When she finishes speaking, Tao Qian (pseudonym) pauses for a couple of seconds, then starts sobbing on the other end of the line.

On the first day of Chinese New Year (25 January), Tao Qian’s 46-year-old aunt, Madam Tao, fell ill with a mysterious fever. At the time, it was no longer a secret that a new coronavirus had broken out in Wuhan. Five days before, on 20 January, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued instructions to contain the spread of the epidemic; two days before, on 23 January, a lockdown was announced on Wuhan with its 11 million people.

Although she kept telling herself it wasn’t “that illness”, hospital healthcare worker Madam Tao’s heart fell when she took her temperature in her rental apartment.

She did not tell her husband and son, who were both out of town. She did not even inform Tao Qian, her only relative in Wuhan, hoping that it would go away in a couple of days. She was fully aware that Wuhan was cut off from the outside world, and it would be difficult for her relatives in other cities to come to take care of her.

Behind these posts are many families broken by the epidemic, and a city surrounded by chaos, anxiety, and setbacks.

It was already the night of 29 January when Tao Qian learnt about her aunt's illness. A volunteer took the weakened Madam Tao to the packed Wuhan Pu’ai Hospital at 8pm. Only at 4am did she get an injection and a chest X-ray done at the fever treatment clinic.

Tao Qian recalls, “The report didn’t say it was that illness. The doctor only said that it did not look good and she should go home and quarantine herself.”

Over the next few days, Madam Tao’s condition deteriorated, with high fever, fatigue, and vomiting. Tao Qian took her to several hospitals, none of which could do the coronavirus test. “We went to the fever treatment clinic, but they could only give her an injection. We contacted the emergency centre, but they said they could only pick her up if there was a bed. For that, she had to queue for the test, and then queue for a bed after a confirmed diagnosis. But… she could not wait.”

Out of desperation, Tao Qian posted a plea for help on Weibo.

Under the tag “Wuhan patients seeking help” on Weibo, thousands of people like Tao Qian are seeking hope on social media. Behind these posts are many families broken by the epidemic, and a city surrounded by chaos, anxiety, and setbacks.

Wuhan the giant cage

It was in December 2019 that Wuhan first discovered the new coronavirus, which ripped a hole in the fabric of the city.

In the initial stages of the epidemic, the local officials played it down and were slow to move, and even sent the wrong signal that the virus could not spread between humans. Before 20 January, Wuhan was calm, except for a very small minority of healthcare workers who gave early warnings through personal channels, which almost nobody believed. Even as the highly contagious virus spread through the city, the local government was still holding huge functions and mass gatherings.

Wuhan is now like a giant cage. The lockdown is being responsible to the people outside, but the people inside have their lives and fates on ‘random’ mode.” - Wuhan netizen

On 23 January, the authorities announced a lockdown on Wuhan — that was when the public realised the seriousness of the epidemic. But the human traffic over Chinese New Year had already transported the virus through China and the world. That hole in the fabric of the city became bigger and harder to mend, in a practically unsalvageable situation.

Over the past two weeks, aid supplies and medical teams have been streaming into Wuhan, with the authorities deploying military troops to assist. The Huoshenshan and Leishenshan hospitals were quickly built, but given the strain, the epidemic in Wuhan remains especially difficult to contain.

medical staff
A frontline medical staff at a hospital in Wuhan, 28 January 2020. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua)

In an interview with Chinese media on the fifth day of the Wuhan lockdown, epidemiologist and pulmonologist Zhong Nanshan teared up as he called Wuhan “a city of heroes”.

Amid a constantly worsening situation, a Wuhan netizen lamented: “Wuhan is now like a giant cage. The lockdown is being responsible to the people outside, but the people inside have their lives and fates on ‘random’ mode.”

As Yang Gonghuan, former deputy director of the National Center of Disease Control of China, described in an interview with Lianhe Zaobao: “This is a rational move, not unlike a war.

“In an emotional sense, many things are not easy and we do not want them, but in such an epidemic, the key is what we should do.”

Saviour or troublemaker

Currently, there are two perspectives on whether Wuhan is making sacrifices or whether it got all of China in trouble.

Yang Gonghuan said, “With this lockdown, the people of Wuhan are not only inconvenienced, but they are the biggest victims. We do not have to blame Wuhan for bringing the epidemic to the whole country. Similarly, it is reasonable to say that it has made sacrifices to control the epidemic.”

When this reporter contacted Tao Qian, Madam Tao was still waiting for the coronavirus test, the first step to being admitted to hospital. But it is not known whether she will be able to continue waiting.

Tao Qian said if she had not seen the chaos in the hospitals and experienced the extreme helplessness from having a relative who was ill, she would not have known what a disaster Wuhan is facing. She now understands why people were rushing to get out in the eight hours before the lockdown took effect.

She said, “It’s really hopeless. We can’t blame the hospitals for not taking in patients; we can only blame it on fate that we are in Wuhan.”

Experts say turning point not reached

Apart from the large-scale lockdowns in Hubei, China has also implemented strict restrictions on human movement to prevent the spread of the virus. However, looking at the figures, it is too early to say that the new coronavirus will take a turn for the better in the short term.

According to Lianhe Zaobao’s count, in the seven days after the number of cases in China passed 10,000, the number of new cases has been increasing at a rate of over 15% each day.

In an interview on 7 February, Zhong Nanshan said while there is no significant increase in the number of new confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, that does not mean the epidemic is easing.

He emphasised that the number of new cases is the most crucial indicator. “It is still a few days before we can tell the epidemic's development. The key is still early detection and quarantine.”

On the day following the lockdown on Wuhan and several cities in Hubei, the number of confirmed cases in China rapidly passed the 1,000 mark, after which it broke 10,000 on 31 January, then 20,000 on 3 February, leaping to 31,161 on 6 February.

According to Lianhe Zaobao’s count, in the seven days after the number of cases in China passed 10,000, the number of new cases has been increasing at a rate of over 15% each day. While the rate of increase has slowed since 6 February, there have still been over 3,000 new cases each day.

Public health physician and former Singapore Medical Association president Wong Chiang Yin said, “Things might get worse before they get better.”

During the SARS period in 2003, Dr Wong was the chief operating officer of Singapore General Hospital. He said the increase in the epidemic numbers might be due to confirmed diagnoses for previously suppressed cases, or because people are more aware. But from the increasing number of confirmed cases and deaths in China over the past few days, the epidemic has not yet peaked.

“If we are lucky enough, China might be able to bring the epidemic under control by spring, but it might also stretch to the second half of the year...” -  Dr Wong Chiang Yin

Currently, Hubei claims over 60% of the confirmed cases in China, while over half of those cases are in Wuhan. According to official figures from China, before the lockdown on Wuhan, about 5 million people left Wuhan without knowing about the epidemic, and a bigger fear for the outside community is whether the epidemic will spread further in other areas.

Epidemic in Wuhan will peak in April?

In a report in medical journal The Lancet, the head of medicine at Hong Kong University, Gabriel Leung, and his team estimated that as of 25 January, the first day of Chinese New Year, about 75,000 people in Wuhan were infected and spread the virus to Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, and other places.

The team forecast that if the virus remains equally infectious, the epidemic in Wuhan will peak only in April, with other cities following in the subsequent one or two weeks.

China's epidemic easing outside Wuhan?

In Yang Gonghuan's assessment as told to this reporter, even when control measures are well implemented, the current increase in cases fits the pattern of epidemiology given the large number of infected persons. However, as the number of confirmed cases outside of Hubei is easing, she predicts that this will start to fall in mid-February.

Currently, there are confirmed cases in over 20 countries and regions around the world, but these are mostly imported cases, with no wide community spread.

yang gonghuan
Former deputy director of the National Center of Disease Control of China, Yang Gonghuan. (Internet)

A global pandemic?

Dr Wong feels that in the worst case, other countries will also see wide community spread and the epidemic becomes a global pandemic. Whether that happens will depend on how China controls the epidemic domestically, and whether other countries can remain vigilant. Another determining factor is whether the virus mutates.

He said, “If we are lucky enough, China might be able to bring the epidemic under control by spring, but it might also stretch to the second half of the year. We have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

Impact on China’s economy to be much bigger than SARS

Zhang Ming (pseudonym), the boss of a motor parts processing factory in Ningbo city, Zhejiang province, is anxious as he looks at the empty factory. Machines that should have been noisily working on 3 February (after the Chinese New Year break) is now creepily silent. Production on an order that is due to be shipped overseas in two weeks has not started.

“Last year, the motor industry was no good, and the trade war affected exports. We had plans to do some big business this year, but we didn’t expect all this to happen,” Zhang says in a helpless tone.

Businesses throughout China have delayed reopening after Chinese New Year due to the new coronavirus. Zhejiang, the second-largest epidemic area outside of Hubei, has halted various economic activities in an effort to stop the epidemic, with many small- and medium-sized enterprises in difficulties.

Over the past few days, Zhang has been asking around, hoping that the factory can reopen on 10 February, but the news has not been good. “The only thing to do now is wait. No official dares to guarantee that we will be able to open. These decisions affect whether they get to keep their positions,” he says.

“Each day that we don’t start work, clients might go to Southeast Asia or India. Once they find their source, they won’t come back.” - Zhang Ming

Even if the authorities announce that the factory can reopen, it will take longer for the factory to resume production. Zhang says, “Workers from elsewhere will have to be quarantined when they come back. The mechanic and workshop supervisor in my factory went home to Xiangyang and Enshi in Hubei, and they won’t be able to come back here any time soon.”

Even while work is halted, the rent — 40,000 RMB (S$8,000) a month — still has to be paid. But what makes Zhang even more nervous is that overseas customers might find alternative factories, and those orders might not come back later.

Many motor companies around the world have been reassessing China’s supply capabilities in light of the epidemic. Zhang says, “Each day that we don’t start work, clients might go to Southeast Asia or India. Once they find their source, they won’t come back.”

China’s consumer industry at a standstill

The sudden epidemic has put the brakes on and added to the woes of China’s already weak economy.

...many analysts feel that this current epidemic will spread more widely and have a larger impact than SARS.

Before the manufacturing industry slowed down, the consumer industry was already having it tough. China had hoped to support its weak economy with its consumer industry, but when the epidemic broke out, consumption came to a halt. Leisure venues with high human volume such as cinemas, museums, and theme parks were shut, while Chinese New Year travel was stopped. People did not dare to go out, so the shipping, food and beverage, and retail sectors were all hit.

Jia Guolong, chairman of the Xibei restaurant chain with more than 400 outlets in China, told the media that if the epidemic was not brought under control soon, the company’s cash would not last beyond three months.

empty mall
A nearly-empty mall in Beijing, 1 February 2020. China's consumer industry has taken a heavy hit from the outbreak of the coronavirus. (Reuters)

Measures against epidemic as damaging as economic sanctions

Chinese officials emphasise that the impact of the epidemic is temporary and will not change China’s strong economic fundamentals. They also assert that China’s economic strength, infrastructure, and emergency response ability are significantly better than during the 2003 SARS period. However, many analysts feel that this current epidemic will spread more widely and have a larger impact than SARS.

According to Zhongyuan Bank senior economist Wang Jun, the provinces and cities with over 100 confirmed cases represent over 74% of China’s economy.

After the World Health Organisation declared the new epidemic a global health incident on 31 January, over 20 airlines stopped or reduced flights to China, while many governments evacuated their citizens from Wuhan, and some international businesses announced a temporary closure of their operations in China.

Some analysts worry that if China cannot control the epidemic, the measures against the epidemic would have the same impact as economic sanctions.

According to Zhongyuan Bank senior economist Wang Jun, the provinces and cities with over 100 confirmed cases represent over 74% of China’s economy. Outside of Hubei, the major economic provinces along China’s east coast such as Zhejiang and Guangdong have been harder hit by the epidemic, and have taken tough measures and reduced normal economic activities, which will increase the impact on China’s economy.

As of now, there are over 1,000 confirmed cases in Guangdong and Zhejiang, the most outside of Hubei.

Wang recalls that it took about one and a half months to get SARS under control. Right now, it is difficult to predict how this current epidemic will go, but the measures are tougher. “There will be a big impact in the first quarter. A more conservative estimate is one or two percentage points, but a pessimistic assessment is two or three percentage points.”

“The first thing to do is control the epidemic. Production should stop if it has to. With the epidemic still out of control, it is still not the time to talk about the economy.” - Zhao Xijun of Renmin University of China.

It would be extreme to stop all economic activities to stop the epidemic, but some views hold that its eventual economic impact will depend on how long more it will take to control it, and short-term pain will bring China out of the epidemic sooner and reduce its long-term effect.

Zhao Xijun of Renmin University of China says, “The first thing to do is control the epidemic. Production should stop if it has to. With the epidemic still out of control, it is still not the time to talk about the economy.”

Four scenarios for China from The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)

SARS brought China’s GDP down by two percentage points to 9% in the second quarter of 2003. This rebounded to 10% in the third and fourth quarters of that year, while GDP for the whole year grew by 10%.

The EIU recently predicted four scenarios for China. If the epidemic ends by February, China’s real GDP growth this year will hit 5.7%. If it ends in March, the estimate will shift down to 5.4%. A more pessimistic forecast is that the epidemic lasts until June, in which case real GDP growth will shrink to 4.5%. And if the authorities cannot bring it under control by the end of the year, the figure will plummet below 4.5%.

However, for many companies and workers, the bigger impact is not about how far economic figures drop, but the employment and income behind the figures.

An operator of an education centre in Jiangsu estimates that the company is set to lose tens of thousands of dollars with one month of closure. He says, “Over the past couple of days, some worried teachers have asked me when they can come back to work. Otherwise, their monthly salary of 2,000 to 3,000 RMB is not enough to sustain their housing and car loans.”