Silence echoed through the streets of Dongguan long after the Spring Festival. Workers were scheduled to return to offices and factories, but computer monitors collected dust and assembly lines stood still. The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) had a grip on China and soon spread, along with fear, to other nations.
COVID-19, a newly discovered infectious disease that targets the respiratory system, halted progress for the first three months of 2020.
Dongguan, known as the factory capital of the world, was a ghost town. Workers, who traveled to their home provinces for the Spring Festival, could not return to the city. Most who could chose not to for fear of contracting the virus. The city and all of China resembled a work of fiction, as areas with high infection rates were quarantined.
The epidemic began in Wuhan, Hubei Province, and was reported on December 31, 2019, to the World Health Organization (WHO) China Country Office. It was allegedly traced to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market and thought to have transferred from animals to humans. The city of 11 million people was put under quarantine on January 23 to minimize the spread of the virus.
On January 25, Chinese New Year (CNY) Day, temples and shrines, where people go to make their New Year’s wishes, were sectioned off prohibiting gatherings. Restaurants and bars soon followed, closing for dine-in services.
The virus was deemed a “public health emergency of international concern” by the WHO on January 30. By then 7,736 cases were reported in China and 82 cases in 18 countries around the world. Only seven cases did not have a history of traveling to China.
On March 11 COVID-19 was deemed a global pandemic by the WHO, with 118,319 confirmed cases and 4,292 deaths, and infection rates skyrocketed around the world. On March 28 China banned entry to all foreigners to reduce the number of imported cases. Ninety percent of imported cases are from Chinese nationals returning from overseas according to Luo Zhaohui, vice foreign minister of China.
The full extent of the effects of COVID-19 at first was not realized. In less than three months, the virus forced global isolation as nations passed stringent entry and exit regulations restricting travel.
The virus set back the global economy and is causing the worst recession in modern history as countries close down in an attempt to contain the virus.
“The situation is changing every day. I did an interview with Yahoo TV (a few weeks ago), and back then I would have said it (the economic impact) was a China thing and depended on when Chinese factories reopened. Now it has spread to other countries,” Michael Michelini, a crossborder e-commerce trader said.
He added it is difficult for businesses to find factories outside of China that have the skills to make certain products. The world was reliant on China, but the virus disrupted that dependency. Michelini said businesses are looking into a China plus one strategy and now they will consider the value of diversifying more. Other countries’ demands have lessened, causing foreign trade to fall 11 percent and exports to go down by 17.2 percent in China in January and February, according to the General Administration of Customs.
Local businesses took the brunt of the impact. Restaurants remained closed for dine-in services from the beginning of February to March 13 in Dongguan.
“We all know this situation will pass and get back to normal in the next few months, but when businesses strongly rely on day to day sales which suddenly stops all coming cash in, it is very dangerous that it can go straight to bankruptcy and get selfliabilities,” a representative from HollyII, a restaurant in Dongguan, said.
The representative added the situation will bring more awareness to food and safety standards, not only to restaurants but food suppliers and manufacturers as well. COVID-19 caused businesses to rethink sales distribution channels in the service industry, shifting to provide a wider presence online. This offered more opportunities and lowered the risk of cost.
Factories and offices had to implement specific safety regulations in order to reopen.
“We had to sterilize all the factory, prepare masks for the workers—at least two per day per worker. We bought hand sanitizer and made sure there were not more than four workers per room,” Anna Grinvald, CEO of Grinvald Footwear and factory owner, said.
She opened her factory on February 17, 16 days after they were scheduled to return, with suppliers being her main setback.
“We cannot control or force the suppliers to open the factory. Some of them are from Hubei province and even if they want, they cannot return now. This makes our business very slow, and projects are stuck in the middle,” she said.
Grinvald mentioned concerns for future orders and was scared customers would replace her with suppliers from Eastern Europe since the prices are similar. She is not worried about that now and is concerned about the global economy.
Schools act as incubation chambers for growing and spreading diseases due to close quarters and utensil sharing. The start dates for the spring semester in China were originally scheduled for February 18 for local schools, and February 3 for international schools, but were extended because of COVID-19.
The announcement for schools to officially begin online classes came from the Education Administration Bureau on Sunday, March 1, a month after the intended start date. However, the situation varied depending on the school.
“Online classes began on February 3, which was to be our first day back from the CNY break,” Kelly Kramer, International School of Dongguan’s (ISD) director, said.
She admitted to getting a split reaction from parents, saying they appreciate the safety precautions but are having a difficult time getting their children to focus with online learning. The main pushback was parents wanting live lessons and compared how ISD taught online to what Chinese schools allegedly were doing Kramer added.
“Besides the obvious challenges of instruction being online, our school community misses the opportunity of getting to greet and connect with each other every day,” Jocelyn Aebischer,director of Quality Schools International (QSI) Dongguan, said.
She added the school is looking forward to catching up and interacting once again with the QSI community.
Some schools were impacted with a delayed start date and are examining the reality the virus had on cutting into the school year.
“Summer holiday will be most likely shorter in 2020. There were also some unconfirmed signals about possible Saturday classes–it will most likely depend on how long the semester is delayed. After all, students need to master curriculum material planned for this semester. The exact course of action will be decided once the situation is under control and we know the date when we can go back to classrooms,” Jakub Pawlik, vice principal at Hanlin School, said.
He added some teachers decided to return to China, but most are in other countries. At first they postponed their return flights for when the situation was contained, but since the outbreak moved abroad. It quickly became more difficult, and soon impossible, to return.
Teachers prepared recorded lessons and were required to be available for video calls and instant messages from students.
“We really try hard to make the video and instructions interesting, so the videos include personalized animations and interesting digital content. It differs because the children can pace their work, so we deal with individual children mostly separately,” Emil Waldhauser, a grade five teacher at Hanlin School, said.
He finds himself spending most of the day at the computer talking and working with students to make sure they understand the assignments.
Saying the virus made individuals more health-conscious is an understatement. From late January to the beginning of March, there was a shortage of masks and hand sanitizers in China. Dongguan government implemented a mask lottery, causing people to flock to pharmacies in the early stages where they knew masks were stored.
The virus forced social changes regarding laws on trade and the consumption of wild animals in China. In late January trade and consumption of wild animals was suspended, and on February 24 it was completely banned by the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China to combat COVID-19. Prior to the outbreak, laws on meat consumption were limited to the protection of endangered animals but were not specific about the slaughter and sale of wild animals not endangered. The WHO said there is a possible link between the consumption of certain wild animals and COVID-19.
The People’s Congress Standing Committee is looking to strengthen and add specifics to laws regarding the prohibition on the capture, sale and consumption of all wild animals.
COVID-19 revealed xenophobic tendencies towards Chinese citizens, those traveling from China, individuals of Asian descent, even those who speak Chinese.
“I saw people kick Chinese people out of restaurants and shops. I was kicked out of Zara since the guard heard me speaking Chinese to my engineer on the phone,” Grinvald, who is a long-term Chinese resident and Israeli citizen, said when she visited her home country.
A more noticeable incident came to light when university student Jonathan Mok was attacked in London on February 24. Mok is from Singapore of Chinese descent but has lived in London for two years prior to the incident.
According to Mok, the assailants said, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country,” as they proceeded to beat him. Mok posted about the attack on his Facebook, asking witnesses to come forward and help identify the assailants.
When China started receiving imported cases, the tables turned, and foreigners reported standoffish behavior from locals. Geno DeVille, a Dongguan expat of 16 years, recalled a recent experience he had at a sushi restaurant in Nancheng.
“Two boys in their mid-twenties came in and sat down close to us. One of the guys who sat down looked across the rail at me and said to his friend, ‘let’s sit somewhere else. There is a Westerner’. At that moment, because we were leaving, I stood up and the guy instantly sat down and said ‘it is okay. He is going now,’.” DeVille said.
He confronted them and said the restaurant staff was on his side, condemning the behavior of the two men.
The NASA and European Space Agency pollution monitoring satellites show a decrease in NO2 levels January 1-20, and February 10-25, 2020, in China.
China sees a reduction in NO2 and CO2 levels every year during CNY due to the country shutting down for 10 days over the national holiday. COVID-19 caused the country to remain closed for an additional month-and-a-half after the official holiday ended, biding time to contain the outbreak. Domestic flights in China were cut by 60 percent in late January and February, and international flights were also dramatically reduced.
The use of coal and oil dropped, showing a 25 percent decrease in CO2 emissions across China in the two weeks after Chinese New Year in 2020 compared to the previous year. NO2 levels were 37 percent lower across China, according to a report by Carbon Brief.
“This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event,” Fei Liu, air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said.
NASA published a side-by-side map comparison showing the difference between NO2 pollution in the atmosphere from January 1-20, January 28-February 9 and February 10-25 in 2019 and 2020. The reduction started in Wuhan (the epicenter of COVID-19) and quickly spread to the restof China.
The air quality improvements and reduction in air pollution are proving to be short-lived as factories reopen and make up for the lost time.
Correlations between COVID-19 and SARS were drawn since the first reported case. They are genetically related but are different: SARS was less contagious than COVID-19.