China’s virus-stricken cities remain world’s biggest ghost towns

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Shanghai joined Beijing back at work Monday, but the megacities that govern the world’s second-largest economy remained eerily quiet as many logged on from home to avoid worsening the coronavirus outbreak.

Commuters who did go in traversed deserted streets to arrive at empty offices as local government decrees extending the Lunar New Year break to 17 days expired. In Shanghai, like Beijing a week earlier, many workers stayed at home to avoid contracting the disease, leaving vast infrastructure networks mostly idle.

Malls around Shanghai’s Nanjing West Road shopping district were open, but saw few shoppers and the normally bustling Lujiazui financial district sat almost empty. The front desks of some apartment buildings were piled high with groceries and food orders, as many of the city’s more than 20 million residents ordered deliveries instead of venturing out into a community that has almost 300 confirmed cases of the deadly new virus.

Some orders for securities were also slowed down, with few people on site to handle them.

“Everything is good, except you can’t place any orders when working from home,” said He Qi, a portfolio manager with Huatai-PineBridge Fund Management Co. “We have a few portfolio managers taking turns to work from the office. It’s alright if you don’t plan to make any big adjustments to your portfolio in the near term, but if you do then it’s time to trouble the PMs on duty.”

The situation remained largely the same in Beijing, where the holiday had ended a week earlier. The usually crowded shopping area of Sanlitun was so empty Monday morning that a father and son kicked a soccer ball around the outdoor Taikoo Li mall. They were wearing masks, like just about everyone else out.

Chinese companies are participating in one of the largest-ever work-from-home experiments, as the country tries keep its economy moving even as virus cases continue to mount. More than 900 Chinese residents have died from the strain first discovered in humans in December in the central Chinese province of Hubei, with more than 40,000 cases confirmed around the world.

Hubei — an industrial powerhouse with an economy the size of Sweden — remained shut for a third week, underscoring the outbreak’s threat to nationwide growth. The new coronavirus might have infected at least 500,000 people in provincial capital of Wuhan, according to preliminary mathematical modeling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which suggested the outbreak could peak later this month.

Chinese President Xi Jinping also turned up on Beijing’s streets, visiting the capital’s Chaoyang district to inspect virus-control efforts. The Communist Party leader wore a mask and had his temperature checked.

Like many places across the country, representatives for local neighborhood committees in the capital were going door to door, asking residents to report daily on their temperatures by scanning QR codes that directs them to WeChat groups. Propaganda posters promise to mobilize the power of the “masses” to overcome the outbreak. Bars have been largely shuttered or empty in the evenings.

On Sunday, the capital region’s new $11.5 billion (80 billion yuan) Beijing Daxing International Airport, was largely empty, its luggage belts ready to receive just one incoming overseas flight. The parking lot was vacant, and so was the toll road station leading to its entrance.

Incoming passengers had their temperatures checked by groups of health inspectors wearing masks, goggles and hair nets. Travelers were instructed not to walk around without masks.

Still, some aspects of life normal life continued in Beijing, which has confirmed almost 340 coronavirus cases. Food and grocery deliveries were running.

Houhai, a lake and popular tourist spot in central Beijing, saw few of its usual visitors Sunday. Some local residents were out, doing push-ups, taking afternoon walks and swimming in unfrozen patches of water.

The Shanghai municipal government said Monday that about 80% of local software and information-service companies resumed operations Monday, although 70% of their employees were working from home. More than 80% of manufacturers in the city were willing to restart production, Shanghai official Zhang Ying told a briefing, citing data from the survey.

Hui Qu, 63, went to work at Shanghai Tobacco Group on Monday with what she said was just 1% of her colleagues. For the few who showed up, it was business as usual.”I commuted by bicycle to avoid public transport, and people on the street are about a third of the normal level,” Hui said. “It’s a bit tiring to work on the first day, but I am not nervous at all.”

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