Market News

 January 28, 2020
Concern --- and boredom --- mount for those trapped at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak

 In China's Hubei province, authorities are waging a desperate struggle to supply protective equipment, testing kits and hospital beds as the sick pour into clinics and confirmed cases of the new coronavirus mount.

But holed up in apartment blocks across an area the size of Washington state, tens of millions of others who are symptom-free are fending off cabin fever.

Nearly a week into a quarantine of unprecedented scale, as many as 54 million people trapped in the outbreak's epicenter, Wuhan, and the densely populated plains lining the Yangtze River are beginning to adjust to a surreal new reality that could last weeks, if not longer.

Transportation services have largely ground to a halt and most businesses are shuttered. But so far, residents say, food remains relatively well-stocked --- if more expensive than usual --- in supermarkets, and order prevails on the eerily abandoned streets.

Government officials have ordered Alibaba's Hema chain of grocery stores to remain open, and companies have continued to offer home deliveries of food and supplies. Seven of the country's major courier services say they are rushing in express shipments of medical aid.

State propaganda organs on Monday showed the premier, Li Keqiang, visiting a Wuhan supermarket, where he assured the crowd that the government could keep vegetables flowing in and prices stable.

With most basic necessities within reach --- for now --- the next looming question for the healthy population: Is this life for the near foreseeable future?

"I don't want to take the risk just yet," said Zhang Min, a 30-year old homemaker whose family hasn't ventured out of their 500 square-foot apartment on Zhongshan Road for six days. She plans to continue staying indoors, doing yoga and learning dance moves with her daughter since her pantry is stocked with another three days' worth of food, she said.

Around 8 p.m. on Monday night, Zhang turned off the lights in her apartment, opened her window and began bellowing the national anthem as part of a citywide initiative arranged by neighborhood committees to boost morale.

"It was good to release some pent-up stress," she said.

Across town, an English teacher surnamed Tang, 28, said he was instructed this week by his academy to prepare teaching over the Internet, probably for a long haul. All primary and secondary schools in Wuhan would transition to online courses starting Feb. 10, local media reported Tuesday.

Tang said he saw online notices that Wuhan would remain under lockdown through April that were later scrubbed.

Whatever the case, he said, "this is going to last much longer. It's the only way we can keep our families safe. There's no other choice."

Zeng Yulin, another teacher, said Wuhan librarians have been offering books to keep children occupied at home. Bank lenders were even extending mortgage payment deadlines, she said.

"The biggest problem isn't eating. It's not going to work and getting your salary for a month or two," she said. "Will people survive that?"

On Chinese social media, holed-up Wuhanites showed how they were coping in videos that quickly went viral. Neighbors exchanged meat for vegetables out of their high-rise windows. Aunties sat around a mah-jongg table placing bets with their prized protective face masks instead of cash. A man in his pajamas sat in front of his living room aquarium dangling a fishing pole.

One poster on the popular Douban forum described bored relatives debating a perennial conspiracy theory in China: whether the viral outbreak was a secret U.S. plot.

"This fight's been going on two hours," poster "big island" wrote sarcastically. "If I knew family dinners were so much fun I wouldn't ever need to go out."

Some experts argue that Hubei's quarantine --- likely to be the largest in human history --- may not be necessary or effective, and may instead backfire by stoking public resentment. Indeed, beneath the jokes and memes this week was an undercurrent of frustration about the government. Many Chinese this week logged onto sites streaming the HBO mini-series "Chernobyl" and left comments drawing a connection between the late-era Soviet Union and a Chinese Communist Party also known for coverups.

In a state television interview on Monday, Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang apologized to citizens who were angry about the city's lockdown and acknowledged that the government withheld information about the outbreak during its critical early stages. Zhou appeared to indirectly blame his superiors in the party hierarchy for muzzling him.

"The party secretary above him who hasn't even shown his face yet," said Tang, the English teacher, referring to the mayor and his superiors. "What we're seeing now can't be his fault alone. We need the country to hold all these people accountable."

Chinese officials have foreshadowed the possibility of tough and disruptive isolation measures lasting months --- and exacting an enormous toll on the economy and daily life. One of them, the chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control, Zeng Guang, urged Wuhan to brace for a "protracted war."

"The virus battle in Wuhan will last longer than SARS," Zeng wrote Monday on Weibo, referring to the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus epidemic that lasted eight months from 2002 to 2003.

Zeng said the coronavirus's spread may not taper off until warmer weather arrives in spring, but he said the arrival of medical relief teams from across the country should relieve the patient bottleneck.

For many foreigners stranded in Hubei, the prospect of waiting weeks more seemed unbearable. Kashir Javaid, a Pakistani medical student studying at Hubei Polytechnic University in Huangshi, outside Wuhan, said he was trapped on campus along with another 100 other international students from Asia and Africa.

The university began providing food in the cafeteria on Monday, but every other store is closed. The Pakistani Embassy hasn't responded to his pleas to be evacuated, he said, and his classmates have suffered nervous breakdowns.

"It's the tension in the air," he said. "The Chinese say we are waiting for good news from our scientists and maybe we can leave February 10, but I don't think they have any way to contain this."

Back in Wuhan, Coco Zhao, a 21-year old student, said she spent several days holed up in her Hubei University dorm, playing smartphone games, polishing her English and video-chatting with her parents who live 60 miles away in another locked-down Hubei city.

As she emerged Tuesday to buy groceries, Zhao said, she found hundreds of shoppers already queuing at a supermarket at 8:30 a.m. The shop had most foods, but fresh vegetables, masks and hand sanitizer were long sold out.

She worried about the reports of overwhelmed doctors and surging infections, Zhao said, but for now, that seemed to be a distant struggle.

"I'm a little bit worried about my safety," she said. "Mostly, I'm just bored."