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How novel coronavirus outbreak has disrupted life across China

China continues to struggle with novel coronavirus and is only now starting to allow scientists and public health officials from outside to assist in its efforts. While the majority of infections and fatalities are centered in Hubei province, the illness is increasingly being felt across China. William Brangham talks to The Economist’s David Rennie for an inside look at how the country is coping.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    China continues to struggle against the viral outbreak of this new coronavirus, and is only now starting to allow scientists and public health officials from the outside to assist its efforts.

    William Brangham takes a look at how the country is coping.

  • William Brangham:

    While the vast majority of infections and fatalities are centered in Eastern Central China, in Hubei province, this outbreak is increasingly being felt across China.

    For a look at how things are on the ground hundreds of miles from Hubei, I'm joined by David Rennie. He's the Beijing bureau chief for "The Economist" magazine.

    David, thank you very much for being here.

    Could you just give us a sense right now, what is it like in Beijing?

  • David Rennie:

    So, today in Beijing, where I am, would normally be absolutely packed. It's the end of this very long, extended lunar new year holiday.

    Literally, millions of migrant workers are due to be coming back to the big city here from their homes in the countryside, where they went to see their families. Factories should be starting up. Shops should be starting up.

    None of that is happening. It's still unbelievably quiet. This is a city of 22 million people, and most small shops are closed. Restaurants are closed. The schools are closed. No parents will put their kids out on the playground or in the park. It really is a ghost town, though it's a huge city.

    It's really extraordinary, how this enormous city just feels completely, completely dead.

  • William Brangham:

    And I understand that people have basically been ordered to quarantine themselves inside their homes. How are people reacting to those kind of orders from the government?

  • David Rennie:

    So, it's a mixed picture.

    If you're asking, how do the Chinese take the idea of being told to stay home and effectively cancel the biggest holiday of the year, there's an amazing acceptance.

    I went into villages where a dozen or so people were literally locked in their bedrooms for the whole of the Chinese equivalent of kind of Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one, because they had come from jobs in Wuhan, the worst affected city. And so they were immediately just quarantined and told they couldn't even see their own families.

    That kind of quarantine, there is amazing acceptance. People use these propaganda phrases that you see on red banners hung around the street by the party saying that this is a war, this is a people's war, a battle.

    And they really do feel, I think, like foot soldiers in that battle. That's one side of it. There is another side of it, which is how much people trust the government's assurances that this is under control, and how they seem to have really covered this up for several weeks at the start.

    And has that made this a bigger crisis than it needed to be? That, we're seeing a tremendous, unusual amount of very unusual political anger on Chinese social media.

  • William Brangham:

    And what about the economic impacts? We have seen some car manufacturers outside of China basically stop production because they're saying that they can't get parts from China.

    But I'm curious, how is the local economy in China holding up?

  • David Rennie:

    I think that it's next couple of weeks that will tell us a tremendous amount about public morale inside China, because people are going to either not be able to come back to their jobs at all, or — tens of millions of people were expecting to come back and pick up that job as a waiter or as a cleaner in an office building or working in an airport.

    But all the flights are canceled. All the restaurants are closed. All the office buildings are telling people to work from home. So, if you were counting on that income, it's not going to be there.

    Now, if that lasts a couple more weeks, if the infection numbers keep climbing, then that's going to become a really serious domestic issue. And inasmuch as big factories that are part of global supply chains are also not able to get up and running, what's at the moment a kind of Chinese domestic worry is very quickly going to become a worry for the whole of kind of global commerce.

  • William Brangham:

    What is your sense about how President Xi and the central government being perceived in this crisis? This obviously has to be an enormous test for them.

  • David Rennie:

    President Xi has been presented for the last several years as the supreme leader, the man with all of the wisdom to run this country.

    But, right now, he's clearly the man on the hook. And we're seeing the propaganda machine pushing very much this familiar narrative that, if there had been any mistakes made, it's because of bad apples at the local level who will be sort of rooted out by the central government, investigated, and anti-corruption kind of detected.

    In the meantime, President Xi, as you say, has been touring hospitals and medical facilities here in Beijing. He was called the commander of the people's war against the epidemic today by the state media. They're very much presenting him as kind of the general in charge.

    But there is that tremendous distrust of a lot of what the government is telling people. And people can see images, particularly from those worse affected areas like the city of Wuhan, where there are a lot of frightened, sick people, who think they might have the virus, but when they get to hospitals, they're completely overwhelmed.

    A lot of doctors and nurses are getting sick. There just aren't the supplies. And so, inasmuch as things are going wrong — and it's a massive challenge for any country — that is a very hard thing to manage, if you are the team around President Xi who've really presented him as this utterly infallible, benevolent, kind of imperial figure.

    And that raises the stakes for him when a big crisis like this needs managing.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, David Rennie, Beijing bureau chief for "The Economist," thank you very much.

  • David Rennie:

    Thank you.

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