By John Saulnier, FrozenFoodsBiz Editorial Director
To our readers in China and elsewhere in the ever widening coronavirus-threatened world now coping with confusion, if not coughing, sneezing or worse, please take extra precaution to be as safe as possible during these uncertain times. Many millions of people in the PRC rang in the Lunar New Year of the Rat and are spending the early days of Spring Festival period under virtual house arrest. The government has ordered quarantine measures and locked down major cities and transport links while it investigates the spread of a deadly pneumonia-like virus and seeks a vaccine to control and counter the infection that has been thus far been attributed to at least 1,381 deaths and 63,851 confirmed cases in mainland China.
Friends in Beijing told us earlier this week that they expect to continue hunkering down for some time to come, as offices and schools are closed anyway for the New Year holiday and public celebrations and gatherings have been cancelled. Thankfully, with a refrigerator full of life sustaining frozen food, there is no need for them to strap on anti-contagion face masks and stroll to the local supermarket or corner shop for provisions in the near term.
While the sale of limited shelf life imported and domestic fresh seafood and other products in a currently distribution-challenged PRC will suffer in the near term, the frozen sector should continue to fare well. The big question from a domestic production perspective, however, is when will workers be allowed to return to work. This will not only affect output of major protein staples such as poultry and red meat, but also impact frozen fish and seafood reprocessed in the major production hubs of Qingdao and Dalian.
In the 11-million-plus population city of Wuhan in the central China province of Hubei, where the viral outbreak now designated as “Covid-19” is said to have originated at a wet market last month, videos posted online over the weekend showed nearly empty shelves in grocery stores as panic-stricken shoppers rushed to buy foodstuffs. Let’s hope the staples have since been replenished with stocks from local warehouses.
It has been speculated that the pathogen may have been transmitted to humans from live and/or butchered animals marketed at the now shuttered seafood outlet in Wuhan that also sold wild birds, civets and snakes. However, there is no solid proof to support this notion. What is clear is that at some point the infection began spreading from human to human. Cases have been identified in numerous Asian countries and territories beyond the PRC as well as in Europe, the Middle East, North America and Australasia. The number of confirmed cases beyond China had risen to 586, including two deaths, in more than 20 countries and territories by February 13.
The coronavirus is highly likely to have originated from wild animals, according to Zhong Nanshan, an epidemiologist and head of a National Health Commission team investigating the outbreak.
After early news of the contagion broke, North Korea quickly sealed its border with China. Mongolia soon followed suit, and legislators in the PRC’s Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong have called for the same action to be taken. A labor union representing medical personnel said public doctors and nurses have threatened to strike if the government does not soon close the border. Russia announced closure of its Far East East region border with China on January 30.
The South China Morning Post reported that train service connecting Hong Kong with mainland China was briefly disrupted on the morning of January 29 after citizens called for “anti-epidemic” action over the government’s alleged failure to adequately mobilize to prevention further spread of the Wuhan coronavirus in the territory. Eight cases of infection have thus far been confirmed, and it is suspected that more than 100 others are related to the virus.
When the first draft of this story was filed on January 29, the World Health Organization (WHO) had refrained from designating the worsening situation in China to be a global emergency. Such a declaration would likely trigger travel and trade restrictions, resulting in significant economic impact globally. On January 30, following mounting criticism and growing international concern, the UN health agency ultimately determined that the rapidly spreading outbreak did indeed constitute a public health emergency of international concern. Shortly thereafter the US State Department advised Americans not to travel to China.
Activities on the ground in the PRC and around the world for several days or more had already convinced many observers that the novel coronavirus outbreak had become an emergency situation both in terms of human well being and commercial health. How much negative impact on the economy will be felt remains to be seen, but the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis in 2002-03 is thought to have cost $25 billion in commercial losses throughout China while global losses from reduced travel and spending were put at $40 billion to $50 billion.
A number of major airlines have canceled flights to the PRC because of decreased demand caused by fear of contracting the virus. In Japan, more than 70 passengers reportedly refused to board a China Southern Airlines plane in Nagoya after identifying a number of fellow travelers booked on the Shanghai-bound flight as natives of Wuhan. According to the Daily Mail, all eventually boarded the jet following the intervention of a Chinese consulate official during the five-hour standoff.
British Airlines has announced that it is suspending all flights to and from mainland China, on advice from the Foreign Office. In a statement issued on Wednesday morning, BA said: “We apologize to customers for the inconvenience, but the safety of our customers and crew is always our priority.”
A growing number of national governments, among them the USA, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, France, Germany and Italy have sent charter planes to China to evacuate citizens in Wuhan. Some Australians are reportedly being transported to the remote Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island where they will be quarantined, tested for the virus and treated if found positive for exposure prior to returning home.
On January 28 WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sat down in Beijing with Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the PRC’s Communist Party and paramount leader of the nation, to discuss implications of the coronavirus outbreak and reiterate their commitment to bring it under control.
“Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is WHO’s highest priority,” said Tedros. “WHO will keep working side-by-side with China and all other countries to protect health and keep people safe.”
According to a January 30 report in the South China Morning Post, the World Health Organization has come under fire for its officials’ “full-throated praise of the Chinese government’s transparency in its response to the outbreak, contrasting with rising criticism that the government and its official media organs have downplayed the severity of the virus.”
The WHO on Wednesday walked back a situational report it published last weekend in which the global risk from the Wuhan coronavirus contagion was deemed “moderate.” In a recent Twitter thread, the wording was amended to “high,” as the discrepancy was blamed on “human error” in preparing the initial report.
Hitoshi Oshitani, a former regional advisor on communicable disease surveillance and response at the WHO’s Western Pacific office who now works at the Department of Virology at the Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan. , said that there is clearly “an imminent risk” of a global outbreak.
“I think the WHO should have declared a public health emergency of international concern earlier. They are supposed to declare PHEIC (Public Health Emergency of International Concern) based on a risk of international spread. There was already significant risk of international spread one week ago,” stated Oshitani in no uncertain terms.
Xi Jinping called the situation “grave,” and was reported by state media as commenting: “The epidemic is a demon and we cannot let this demon hide.” He has sent Premier Li Keqiang to Wuhan to assess efforts initiated by a special task force assigned to contain the disease as more than 4,000 medical professionals have been dispatched to provide aid and comfort at makeshift hospitals now under construction in Hubei province.
Reportedly, much of the population in the Wuhan epicenter left the city before the lockdown went into effect last week, prior to the Lunar New Year, which is the heaviest travel period in China as over 400 million people typically travel to reunite with family. On January 22, the number of passengers departing Wuhan by train was 299,600, according to figures from the local railway authority. It is not known exactly how many more people left by air, road or river, but according to Mayor Zhou Xianwang up to five million residents are estimated to have left the city before travel restrictions were imposed.
According to a recent report in the South China Morning Post, a leading Chinese virology expert has warned that the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan could be 10 times as bad as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic that killed almost 800 people worldwide. Already by now the number of 2019-nCov cases has surpassed the SARS total.
Guan Yi, director of the State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases at Hong Kong University, quoted in an interview with Caixin magazine last week, said that after a visit to Wuhan on January 21 and 22 he “chose to become a deserter” and left.
Guan added that that vital evidence that could have been used to trace the source of the virus was unfortunately destroyed when the wet market in Wuhan was washed clean.
For now, Chinese authorities have temporarily banned the trading of wild animals and vowed to “severely investigate and punish” violators of the prohibition.
The Chinese Lunar New Year and Spring Festival period is from January 25-February 8, though it may be extended to cope with the coronavirus problem. Kindergartens, primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong will not reopen before February 17. Let’s hope for the best in the days ahead.