We must be approaching peak WARS panic. There's a U.S. "red alert" on travel to China, a Level 4. "Don't go!" The highest level of fear there is.
Here in Hong Kong, I passed a line literally around the block outside a Bonjour drug-store branch that had received a new shipment of surgical masks. Buyers are limited to one box per person. When stocks have run out before everyone gets served, shop staff have been abused, and the outside of stores damaged by irate customers.
The Hong Kong stock market, brought 0.5% lower by healthcare and energy stocks on Friday and near a two-month low, has given up 6.7% so far this year. There was a short-lived rally in the morning, and bargain buying, but there's surely still far farther to fall.
My wife and I had a sit-down at the dining room table today to discuss our options. Schools in Hong Kong will be closed for the entire month of February, the government announced today, extending a two-week furlough into four. Hong Kong companies are encouraging people to work from home.
The mainland, of course, has it worse. Manufacturing centers such as wealthy Guangdong Province next to me as well as Shanghai and Chongqing have banned companies from reopening next week. The disease has spread from "China's Chicago," the central industrial inland port of Wuhan, a crossing point north-south and east-west for rail and road, right across the country.
Should we leave town? She's a graphic designer who could take her work on the road; I can do quite a bit of reporting while traveling, too. My sister lives in Sydney, and my folks in Britain, in the city of Bristol, so either destination is a possibility. As long as there are still flights to take us there, that is. We feel the window to escape is closing shut.
The United States, Britain and Japan are all recommending that their citizens do not travel to China. But the city-state of Singapore has gone further. It announced on Friday evening that it would bar anyone traveling from China from its borders, whatever their citizenship. Singaporeans themselves would be allowed home from China but would have to spend 14 days on enforced leave, confined to their homes.
Mongolia has also barred travelers from China. Taiwan won't take Chinese nationals. Italy has shut down all air service to and from China. British Airways has suspended flights to mainland China, though not Hong Kong. Virgin Atlantic briefly included Hong Kong in its suspension of service, then relented. But soon enough, it may not be possible to get out of China, even if you want to. Ironically, the Chinese government is attempting to airlift Wuhan citizens back home.
The number of infections from Wuhan Acute Respiratory Syndrome has now surpassed, at 9,816, the total number ever infected worldwide by SARS (8,437). It's clear the fast-moving outbreak will deal a significant blow to the Chinese economy, almost certainly worse than SARS, since China is more integrated globally. "In our view, the worst is yet to come," Nomura's Asia economics team state in a note.
That's true both in terms of disease, and its impact. The outbreak of SARS, or Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome, in 2002 and 2003 knocked two percentage points off the Chinese economy for a quarter. With WARS, a drop of two pp or more is likely from the 6.0% GDP growth achieved in Q4 2019. A V-shaped recovery is then likely; but like a patient with nasty charts on the clipboard at end of his bed, we don't know when that's gonna come.
I lived through SARS, and must say that the experience has left this city stronger, mentally and practically, in dealing with the disease within its borders. But there's a flood of information shared on WhatsApp and social media about the massed ranks of mainland Chinese attempting to come here to avail themselves of better health care, to feel safe, just to get away.
That creates a panic among Hong Kongers. Trade unions in the city as well as nursing staff are threatening to go on strike if Hong Kong continues to let large numbers of mainland nationals wander in. The 18,000 members of the hospital-authority employee's group say they'll begin a phased strike next week unless the city takes "full-scale preventative measures of infection control."
Hong Kong of course has an extremely tense relationship with the mainland. Last year's pro-democracy demonstrations have continued into 2020. While they stem from dissatisfaction with the central Communist government, and the influence it exerts on the largely appointed city government in Hong Kong, there's also a lot of resentment of the greater social, cultural and economic influence of mainlanders in general. They're loud, they're uncouth, they eat bats and badgers for good lord ... and they're over here.
Plenty of other people here in Hong Kong also want to see the borders closed with mainland China. Some would joking/not joking say, "maybe forever." But the hamstrung Chief Executive Carrie Lam, now wearing a face mask to meetings despite the city's attempt to outlaw their use, says that would be "inappropriate and impractical."
Hong Kong has suspended the high-speed rail link to China, as well as cross-border ferries. But since the land crossings at Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau remain open, as well as air links, it's estimated the temporary restrictions affect only about 27% of the passenger flow from mainland China. So 73% can come in, as long as they promise they haven't been to Wuhan's province, Hubei.
Of the 9,816 infections from WARS, 213 people have died. Officially. While the vast majority of infections and all the deaths are in China, the World Health Organization has finally made the overdue move of calling the disease a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, an official designation reserved previously for Ebola, polio, H1N1, the Zika virus ... and now WARS.
The fear from the WHO's point of view is that the disease could spread to a poor country without the wherewithal of China to contain or even test for the virus. WARS has spread from a Wuhan patient to people who have not traveled to Wuhan in Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Germany, France and now the United States. We don't know how easily it spreads; the death rate remains around 2.2%, far down from the 9.6% experienced during SARS. But it's far above the 0.1% death rate of flu.
Flu has infected 15 million Americans this season, and killed 8,200 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's 0.06%. Should WARS take hold in a nation like Pakistan, say, or Nigeria, or run its full course unchecked in China, we would be looking at figures a far cry higher than 8,200. For the United States, a 15 million infection count at the WARS death rate = 330,000 fatalities. China's population is four times the size.
A global health concern indeed. Apart from in China, it appears to be in check, and not threatening to get out of control. The lockdown of almost 60 million people in China may control it there.
For as long as Hong Kong's crossings remain open, we know not how much longer this city, with 11 Wuhan-linked WARS patients, will escape the disease. My wife and I are staying put for now, our kids resigned to a month of home schooling, their teachers at the ready during each period for queries. A flight might be a health risk in itself. Plus, we've seen this before.
There are still flights. I just checked. For now, we hunker down, face masks on in public, hand sanitizer in the pocket, and wait this one out.