‘Like Europe in Medieval Times’: Virus Slows China’s Economy



Keith Bradsher | The New York Times

Workers can’t return to their jobs as supply lines get snarled, extending the forced holiday and fracturing the country.

Workers are stuck in their hometowns. Officials want detailed health plans before factories or offices can reopen. Assembly lines that make General Motors cars and Apple iPhones are standing silent.

More than two weeks after China locked down a major city to stop a dangerous viral outbreak, one of the world’s largest economies remains largely idle. Much of the country was supposed to have reopened by now, but its empty streets, quiet factories and legions of inactive workers suggest that weeks or months could pass before this vital motor of global growth is humming again.

The global economy could suffer the longer China stays in low gear. It has been hampered by both the outbreak and its own containment efforts, a process that has cut off workers from their jobs and factories from their raw materials. The result is a slowdown that is already slashing traffic along the world’s shipping lines and leading to forecasts of a sharp fall in production of everything from cars to smartphones.

“It’s like Europe in medieval times,” said Jörg Wuttke, the president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China, “where each city has its checks and crosschecks.”

New figures show the authorities still have a long way to go before the outbreak can be tamed. On Tuesday, they reported a milestone: the overall death toll from coronavirus in China had topped 1,000. On Monday, the number was 908.

In a sign that China’s leaders feel increasing pressure to look like they are in control, Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, toured a Beijing neighborhood and hospital, in what state media described as an inspection of the front line of the outbreak. Chinese officials have been roundly criticized online even in the face of tough censorship for what many see as a slow initial response and the suppression of early warnings.

On Monday, a team from the World Health Organization landed in Beijing to work with Chinese researchers battling the coronavirus. Their arrival could signal a shift in attitude among China’s leaders, who had balked at a visit and have long worked to show that they do not need foreign assistance to tackle problems.

The organization’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, cited with concern instances of infections among people who had not traveled to China, suggesting that even more cases could emerge. “In short, we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he wrote on Twitter.

Chinese health officials have been encouraged that the pace of recoveries among victims has outpaced deaths for more than a week. The rate of infection, however, has continued to soar, suggesting that the worst is still to come.


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