UPDATES ON THE FIGHT AGAINST CORONA VIRUS AND ECONOMIC ACTIVITIES
The WHO-China Joint Mission, held a press conference in Geneva on February 26, upon its return from a nine-days trip to the Chinese Hubei and other provinces, to see “what works” on dealing with the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). According to team leader Dr. Bruce Aylward, Senior Adviser to the WHO Director General, “China’s bold approach” clearly had a big result. The team of 25 experts found that “speed is everything” in responding to the virus, and China did so respond. Their policy of “social distancing changed the course” of the virus.
Aylward took note of the importance of governors of other states prioritized sending medics and healthcare workers into Hubei, which had an excellent effect. There were some 26,000 visiting medical staff sent in. Sixteen temporary hospitals have been built; and another 19 more are under construction.
Before leaving China, Aylward held a press conference in Beijing where he said about the people of Wuhan, the epicenter of the fight against the edpidemic: “The world is in your debt“. He added that “the people of that city have gone through an extraordinary period and they’re still going through it.”
In the Geneva press conference, Aylward said: “If I had the COVID-19 virus, I’d want to be treated in China.” He highlighted that China’s pragmatic approach is “technology-powered and science-driven. They are using big data, artificial intelligence (AI) in places.” China’s approach is a differentiated one, he said, tailoring their response to the severity of outbreak, numbers, and location, relying on a variety of capabilities, including technological ones which allow for remote evaluation, medical consultation, prescription refills, and much more. You can’t place the whole country on lockdown—as was done in Wuhan—he said; thus the differentiated approach.
“It’s never easy to get the kind of passion, commitment, interest, and individual sense of duty that help stop the virus. Every person you talked to [in China] has a sense that they’re mobilized like in a war against the virus, and they are organized” Aylward emphasized.
“The world is — it’s simply not ready…. This is a rapidly escalating epidemic in different places that we’ve got to tackle superfast to prevent a pandemic. That may be difficult in countries that don’t have the same disease-surveillance setup as China.” Aylward emphasized that the techniques used by China can be emulated elsewhere. They are “old-fashioned public-health tools but applied with a rigor and innovation of approach on a scale we’ve never seen in history. In 30 years of doing this business, I’ve not seen this before.” Being successful requires “a real shift in mindset.” You can’t find every single case, but “you want to find enough to break the big chains of transmission, slow this thing down, and get a grip on it. The technique might sound draconian, but it is how a lot of public health work is done.”
COVID-19 Emergency in Italy Requires Chinese Methods
With the discovery of COVID-19 hotbeds in the Lombardy and Veneto regions, Italy has become the country with the third largest infection in the world outside China. As of Feb. 25, over 300 cases of COVID-19 have been ascertained, with 10 deaths, all of whom were elderly and had pre-existing illnesses. The Italian government has called for an emergency meeting of EU Health Ministers to be held today in Rome to coordinate measures among all EU member countries and to avoid hysteria spreading among the population. However, it has become clear that only Chinese methods will prevent the two Italian hotbeds to become epidemic throughout the country.
The steps undertaken by the Italian government aim at implementing “social distance” like in China, limited to the two hotbeds areas around Codogno (Lombardy) and Vo’ (Veneto), where about 50,000 citizens have been locked down, with police checkpoints; offices and supermarkets are closed, while at the same time food and medical supplies are guaranteed on an emergency basis. In those areas, mass-screening is taking place.
Beyond the two hotspots, many Italian regions have closed schools and in some cases, theaters, clubs, churches, museums and other public places. First Division soccer games have been either postponed or, as in Milan, will be played without a public audience in the stadium.
China’s Economic Activity Rising, But at Fraction of Normal Level
There is now a major effort urged by President Xi Jinping to get economic activity resumed at a normal level in China, from the extremely low level — essentially, command public health and related construction work — to which it had dropped. Outside Hubei, province-wide quarantine measures are being replaced by countywide ones. Emergency credit is available in large volume.
Global Times reported today an analysis from China Merchants Bank Institute that the “recovery rate” of national economic activity is at 30-40%, varying by industry, up only slightly in the past week. As the article points out, “consumption, the biggest growth driver, remains vastly strangled. Many small businesses in the services sector still face threatening challenges, and fresh difficulties have arisen both at home and abroad for the manufacturing sector, as the epidemic outlook is worsening globally.” And consumption, domestic demand, will sustain the longest-term hit.
Global Times reported statements by the National Development and Reform Commission Feb. 24, that large industrial companies are leading in resuming production: 90% of them have resumed production in Zhejiang, 70% in Guangdong, Jiangsu, Shandong and Liaoning. But small and medium-sized enterprises remain largely closed.
The Prime Minister’s “Li Keqiang Index” is widely known. It replaces GDP with electricity generation + rail car loadings + bank loans. Regarding electricity production — the most important parameter — consumption of coal by electric power plants is about 425,000 tons/day, compared to about 650,000 tons/day in 2019 at this period after the New Year. Railway loadings of coal at major ports are about 400,000 tons/day, compared to 550,000 tons/day in 2019 at this point. The electricity generation and use index for one industrial province, Zhejiang, is at 34.77, ten points higher than Feb. 9; however, it was 88.68 at this time last year.
But notably, bank lending is way up. According to data from the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) released Feb. 20 and reported by Reuters Feb. 22, banks extended a record 3.34 trillion yuan ($476.42 billion) in new yuan loans in January, triple the December level. Mortgages and other household loans fell slightly from December to January, but business lending quadrupled. This is PBoC policy, and it is funding discounting of these loans on an unprecedented scale.
Steel production figures are less up-to-date: They were only about one-third of normal at three weeks past the New Year, or one week ago.
Railway passenger traffic is about 15 million persons/day, about one-fourth of normal. These figures are reported by Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research and by Reuters Feb. 24; they come from various sources. Only about one-fifth to one-third of workers who went to their hometowns before New Years, have returned to the cities they work in; some provinces are sending trains or even flights to bring them back.
China had been accounting for one-third of worldwide economic growth.
Beijing Issues Guidelines to Facilitate Work Resumption
On February 25, in Beijing a panel of government officials briefed the media on new centralized measures being undertaken to help businesses to resume production. One leading panelist was Tang Jun, Vice Minister of the State Ministry for Marketing Administration. He quoted Xi Jinping’s recent admonition that, there must be “coordinated action against the epidemic, but also, orderly resumption of work.”
A 10-point plan to help companies resume activity was discussed. Among the points were such measures as the issuance of permits for food producers; the pledge of government investigations to prevent monopolies; the issuance of licenses for producers, and altering the time period of issuing them, to help out businesses involved.