‘Still fearful’: Wuhan struggles to recover after coronavirus lockdown

National unemployment in March was reportedly 5.9 per cent, equivalent to about 29 million people.

This marks a fall from the record 6.2 per cent reported in February, though many observers question whether the figures reflect the true situation with many migrant and rural workers not being recorded.

In February, Zhang Bin, an economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated that as many as 80 million people could be out of work by March.

No comprehensive post-epidemic assessments have been done on businesses yet, but all sectors of the city’s economy are reeling from the impact.

Restaurant owner Zhang Feihu was taken by surprise when the city went into lockdown two days before Lunar New Year, the busiest period for the catering industry.

He had ordered 80,000 yuan (US$11,300) worth of raw food for his two restaurants, which sell boxed meals to white-collar workers in Guanggu, home to the city’s hi-tech sector.

By the time he was able to leave lockdown the food was unfit for human consumption.

Millions of local residents will be tested for Covid-19. Photo: Reuters

Millions of local residents will be tested for Covid-19. Photo: Reuters

He says that even now, dining and tourism have not yet recovered, as many residents stay away from restaurants and shopping malls and some residential compounds and streets remain sealed off.

“I can only earn about 300 yuan a day,” he said. “The public still is fearful of the virus.”

The fear heightened after a new cluster of cases resurfaced in Wuhan this week, prompting the government within 10 days.

Earlier this month, some desperate restaurant owners took to the streets to demand their rents be reduced but they were dispersed by local police who told them not to cause a public disturbance.

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Zhang says property developers in Guanggu have now made a final offer of a two-month reduction to restaurant owners and he is still deciding whether to accept it.

However, he may have no choice.

This week more than 20 restaurants in the district decided to close for good, but Zhang said he could not bear to think about doing the same.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” he said.

Li Mei who had been working at a kindergarten since 2017 said the staff had tried to struggle through when the city went into lockdown by selling products online to make money.

The boss had continued to pay them 3,000 yuan a month to help them but the money ran out at the end of April.

“The closure was expected but it’s still disappointing. We had built a bond with the students. We also have nothing to do now, it’s nerve-racking,” Li said.

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“My boss said if the project could continue in the future, she would invite everybody back. But those are just words of comfort, I know it won’t open again.”

One indication of just how widely the impact is being felt came when a popular blogger known as Ziquan asked WeChat users how their industry had been affected.

Ziquan wrote that he had thought only industries like entertainment, tourism and catering had been hit, but he received thousands of replies indicating that nearly everybody had been affected in some way.

Construction workers get back to work at a site in Wuhan late last month. Photo: Xinhua

Construction workers get back to work at a site in Wuhan late last month. Photo: Xinhua

Those who responded to Ziquan’s post included kindergarten teachers who were selling cherries to try to make some extra money, an actor who was considering getting a job as a food delivery driver and a gym instructor who said he now had nothing to do except walk his dog.

Meanwhile a mobile phone designer said job interviews had become like a beauty pageant because everybody needed to show extra talents.

The local authorities have tried to help small businesses in various ways, by encouraging rent deductions, postponing taxes and cutting electricity and water bills.

But many businesses will not benefit from these measures and are having to rely on their own resources.

Some local farmers are getting help selling their produce online from volunteers.

One such volunteer, Zhu Aobing says he travelled to Zigui, a town 400km (240 miles) away from Wuhan to set up a live-stream that let local orange farmers advertise their wares, which gradually attracted support from well-known bloggers and local officials.

“I saw hundreds of boxes of oranges stacked in storage, rotting away while farmers anxiously discussed their business,” he said.

Volunteers help sell oranges using a live stream. Photo: Handout

Volunteers help sell oranges using a live stream. Photo: Handout

But Huang Qinghua, a local orange grower and pig farmer, said the benefits were limited.

He said he would normally expect to sell 50,000kg of oranges a month, but even with help from the live-stream he was only selling 1,000kg.

He also said he had been struggling to get food and veterinary supplies for his 500 pigs and had not been able to sell an animal since January.

Another problem he faces is that many people in other parts of China are worried about buying produce from Hubei.

He said one long-term client in the eastern province of Zhejiang had become a good friend, but had told him that he was unsure about ordering any of his oranges because his wife was scared they might carry the coronavirus.

“It’s hard being a farmer in China,” he said. “We don’t have the ability to get through disasters nor resources. We don’t have anything to use as security for loans.”

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