The Economic Impact Of An Infectious Disease : Planet Money As the coronavirus spreads internationally, we wanted to know what it looks like when an infectious disease shuts down one of the world's largest economies. We speak with NPR Beijing correspondent, Emily Feng.
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The Economic Impact Of An Infectious Disease

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The Economic Impact Of An Infectious Disease

The Economic Impact Of An Infectious Disease

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

DARIUS RAFIEYAN, HOST:

Hey, everyone. I'm Darius Rafieyan.

LEENA SANZGIRI, HOST:

And I'm Leena Sanzgiri. And we are the producers here on THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Today, we're bringing you a story that, at first glance, may not seem like it's about economics. We're talking about the coronavirus.

RAFIEYAN: So a little background - earlier this month, officials in China identified a new strain of coronavirus that had begun infecting humans, causing an outbreak of respiratory illness in Wuhan, a city of about 11 million people and a major manufacturing hub.

SANZGIRI: The virus has since claimed the lives of at least 132 people and infected more than 6,000 people in at least 18 countries. The Chinese government officially extended the Lunar New Year holiday, keeping schools and most businesses closed. Millions of people are now under strict quarantine, with travel in and out of affected areas tightly controlled.

Huge chunks of Chinese society have essentially ground to a halt, and that's beginning to have some major economic impacts. As the world's second-largest economy and a hugely important market for many global companies, China is a major engine of growth for the world. And now large parts of that engine are sitting idle.

RAFIEYAN: Global stock markets have been rocked in recent days, with hotels and tour operators expected to be hit hard. Restaurant chains like Starbucks, McDonald's and KFC have closed thousands of locations across China. United Airlines, British Airways and Air Canada have cancelled flights into the region. Apple adjusted its latest earnings forecast, anticipating supply disruptions. And automakers like General Motors, Honda and Toyota have all shuttered plants in Wuhan.

SANZGIRI: But beyond all that, beyond the impact on the bottom line and supply chain disruptions, this is also a moment of extreme fear and anxiety for the millions of people currently living under lockdown. And at the end of the day, emotion is just as powerful an economic force as anything else.

RAFIEYAN: And so we wanted to know - what are things actually like on the ground in China? What does it look like when an infectious disease outbreak shuts down one of the world's largest economies? So we decided to reach out to NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng. We caught up with her as she was returning to Beijing from Jiujiang, a city of about 4 1/2 million people, just across the river from the quarantine zone. You'll hear that conversation after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

RAFIEYAN: So Emily, you just got back from a reporting trip to an area near the quarantine zone. And you know, traveling is on a lot of people's minds right now. So what was that like? What was it like going through the airport?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: It was - it wasn't as tense as you would imagine it to be. But going through the airport meant going through many, many security checks. So when you're driving up to the airport, you've got to go through what used to be a toll booth - is now a temperature-checking station. And then you walk into the airport itself. You're subjected to an explosives test but also another temperature check in which they point this gunlike thermometer at your forehead, and it takes an immediate reading.

Then when you get your ticket and you're about to get on the plane again, they do a third temperature check. And then when you actually land at your destination and you get off, they have these temperature sensors set up that are scanning everyone. And if your temperature is too high, someone will come over and flag you. They've got plenty of security milling around to do just that.

RAFIEYAN: And so when you were reporting, about how close to the epicenter of things were you actually able to get?

FENG: So I went to the city called Jiujiang. I could see across the river into the quarantine zone. That's why I picked the city. It's separated by this really narrow waterway. Technically, it's a tributary of the Yangtze River. But on one side is the city I was in. On the other side was Wuhan, which is under really strict quarantine.

RAFIEYAN: What were things like there? Sort of what was - what were you seeing?

FENG: I didn't see much. It was a ghost town. Jiujiang is a city of 4.7 million people. I walked around, drove around for the better part of a day. We saw maybe 60 to 70 people walking on the streets. There were basically no cars. Every store was closed except for pharmacies and grocery stores. The local governments have forced grocery stores to remain open and for them to not raise food prices. So at least people are not going to starve. But everyone's just kind of huddled in their houses, including myself when I'm not on reporting trips. And they're just hoping to wait out the worst of this outbreak.

RAFIEYAN: And do you have any sense of what impact this might have sort of on the economy of China, on the world economy?

FENG: Yeah, I - it'll have a huge economic effect. Every shopping mall has closed. Stores which normally would see some pretty high holiday sales aren't going to see that this year. Most restaurants are closed. Basically, there are no factories open right now except for people who are making medicines, making hazmat suits and making face masks.

The government has extended the Lunar New Year holiday. They've shut down public events associated with the Lunar New Year that might have generated revenues. Cinemas aren't open. Schools aren't opening. People are not going back to work and generating revenue and being productive. So yeah, there's going to be a huge economic cost down the line.

RAFIEYAN: I mean, it just seems like, you know, things in China are on a slightly larger scale. I mean, they - we talk about, like, a city of 11 million people or 4 million people being a smaller city. I mean, it just seems crazy to me that they would be able to mobilize so much and sort of deal with this on such a scale.

FENG: It cuts both ways, right? They're able to mobilize. They can call in all the big pharmaceutical companies and grocery chains and say, listen; you guys have to get your act together. You cannot close. You cannot raise prices. You have to work overtime to make sure that all of our supply needs are met. And they can also impose a huge quarantine zone over 50 million-plus people.

Everyone has to use their national ID to buy a plane ticket or a train ticket. So - and that national ID, by the way, has a number that reflects where your ID is registered, whether you're in Hubei province or Wuhan. So at a certain point, it became very easy to track. They sent the soldiers in to guard train stations and airports so that people couldn't leave. So once those were on lockdown, then it became quite easy to control where people went.

But at the same time, public disclosure and information transparency has been a real issue. I mean, doctors have been describing in on-the-record interviews how they started seeing a spike in cases of this coronavirus starting January 6. We're talking right now January 28. The government didn't start putting quarantine measures in place, migration controls in place to contain this virus until about last Monday. So there was a really long period of time in which there was no information about whether there were new cases and whether this was a true public health concern when it actually was. So yes, they're taking extreme, unprecedented measures to curtail the outbreak now, but a lot of people in China think it should've been done much earlier.

RAFIEYAN: And how are things in Beijing? Are you feeling it there?

FENG: Not really. Beijing has had its first death from the coronavirus. That was a little worrying. But Beijing is a - it's a city of migrants, which means that over the Lunar New Year, everyone goes home the week before the holiday. The city vacates. It feels completely empty, even if there weren't an epidemic going on, so you don't feel the anxiety as palpably as you would in a smaller place where people are going home and worried about getting the virus there.

But one guy I talked to said he was so nervous about not so much getting sick himself but passing it on to loved ones that he was now sleeping separately from his wife in a separate bedroom because he was afraid that he'd come back after a day of running errands, have the virus on him and give it to his wife and child.

RAFIEYAN: And is there anything else that you really want folks, you know, listening to the podcast to know about what's going on there - anything you feel like I didn't ask about or I missed or anything like that?

FENG: I think one of the missed elements of this whole outbreak is, of course, the horrible public health side of things but the psychological toll it's had on people. Like, it's really emotionally heavy to think that anyone around you might be incubating the virus and could give it to you without showing symptoms themselves. So there is an atmosphere of panic in the country.

RAFIEYAN: That was Emily Feng, NPR's Beijing correspondent.

SANZGIRI: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan and me, Leena Sanzgiri. It was fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

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