How novel coronavirus outbreak has disrupted life across China

How novel coronavirus outbreak has disrupted life across China


AMNA NAWAZ: China continues to struggle against
the viral outbreak of this new coronavirus, and is only now starting to allow scientists
and public health officials from the outside to assist its efforts. William Brangham takes a look at how the country
is coping. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: While the vast majority
of infections and fatalities are centered in Eastern Central China, in Hubei province,
this outbreak is increasingly being felt across China. For a look at how things are on the ground
hundreds of miles from Hubei, I’m joined by David Rennie. He’s the Beijing bureau chief
for “The Economist” magazine. David, thank you very much for being here. Could you just give us a sense right now,
what is it like in Beijing? DAVID RENNIE, “The Economist”: So, today in
Beijing, where I am, would normally be absolutely packed. It’s the end of this very long, extended
lunar new year holiday. Literally, millions of migrant workers are
due to be coming back to the big city here from their homes in the countryside, where
they went to see their families. Factories should be starting up. Shops should be starting
up. None of that is happening. It’s still unbelievably
quiet. This is a city of 22 million people, and most small shops are closed. Restaurants
are closed. The schools are closed. No parents will put their kids out on the playground
or in the park. It really is a ghost town, though it’s a huge city. It’s really extraordinary, how this enormous
city just feels completely, completely dead. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And I understand that people
have basically been ordered to quarantine themselves inside their homes. How are people
reacting to those kind of orders from the government? DAVID RENNIE: So, it’s a mixed picture. If you’re asking, how do the Chinese take
the idea of being told to stay home and effectively cancel the biggest holiday of the year, there’s
an amazing acceptance. I went into villages where a dozen or so people
were literally locked in their bedrooms for the whole of the Chinese equivalent of kind
of Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one, because they had come from jobs in Wuhan,
the worst affected city. And so they were immediately just quarantined and told they
couldn’t even see their own families. That kind of quarantine, there is amazing
acceptance. People use these propaganda phrases that you see on red banners hung around the
street by the party saying that this is a war, this is a people’s war, a battle. And they really do feel, I think, like foot
soldiers in that battle. That’s one side of it. There is another side of it, which is
how much people trust the government’s assurances that this is under control, and how they seem
to have really covered this up for several weeks at the start. And has that made this a bigger crisis than
it needed to be? That, we’re seeing a tremendous, unusual amount of very unusual political anger
on Chinese social media. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And what about the economic
impacts? We have seen some car manufacturers outside of China basically stop production
because they’re saying that they can’t get parts from China. But I’m curious, how is the local economy
in China holding up? DAVID RENNIE: I think that it’s next couple
of weeks that will tell us a tremendous amount about public morale inside China, because
people are going to either not be able to come back to their jobs at all, or — tens
of millions of people were expecting to come back and pick up that job as a waiter or as
a cleaner in an office building or working in an airport. But all the flights are canceled. All the
restaurants are closed. All the office buildings are telling people to work from home. So,
if you were counting on that income, it’s not going to be there. Now, if that lasts a couple more weeks, if
the infection numbers keep climbing, then that’s going to become a really serious domestic
issue. And inasmuch as big factories that are part of global supply chains are also
not able to get up and running, what’s at the moment a kind of Chinese domestic worry
is very quickly going to become a worry for the whole of kind of global commerce. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What is your sense about
how President Xi and the central government being perceived in this crisis? This obviously
has to be an enormous test for them. DAVID RENNIE: President Xi has been presented
for the last several years as the supreme leader, the man with all of the wisdom to
run this country. But, right now, he’s clearly the man on the
hook. And we’re seeing the propaganda machine pushing very much this familiar narrative
that, if there had been any mistakes made, it’s because of bad apples at the local level
who will be sort of rooted out by the central government, investigated, and anti-corruption
kind of detected. In the meantime, President Xi, as you say,
has been touring hospitals and medical facilities here in Beijing. He was called the commander
of the people’s war against the epidemic today by the state media. They’re very much presenting
him as kind of the general in charge. But there is that tremendous distrust of a
lot of what the government is telling people. And people can see images, particularly from
those worse affected areas like the city of Wuhan, where there are a lot of frightened,
sick people, who think they might have the virus, but when they get to hospitals, they’re
completely overwhelmed. A lot of doctors and nurses are getting sick.
There just aren’t the supplies. And so, inasmuch as things are going wrong — and it’s a massive
challenge for any country — that is a very hard thing to manage, if you are the team
around President Xi who’ve really presented him as this utterly infallible, benevolent,
kind of imperial figure. And that raises the stakes for him when a
big crisis like this needs managing. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, David Rennie,
Beijing bureau chief for “The Economist,” thank you very much. DAVID RENNIE: Thank you.

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