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Cost of China's anti-virus fight rises with workers idle

SeattlePI.com Sunday, 16 February 2020
BEIJING (AP) — Real estate agent Du Xuekun’s sales usually jump after the Lunar New Year holiday. But this year, Du has been at home for a month with no income after vast swathes of China’s economy were shut down in a sweeping effort to contain a virus outbreak.

Du, who lives in Jiaozhuo, near the central city of Zhengzhou, is one of millions of people who are bearing the soaring cost of the most extreme anti-disease measures ever imposed. Some businesses are reopening, but Beijing has told the public to stay home if possible.

“People will buy food and clothes online but for sure won’t buy an apartment without seeing it,” said Du.

Industries from auto sales to travel to retailing effectively shut down after curbs were imposed starting Jan. 23 with the suspension of most access to Wuhan, an industrial metropolis of 11 million people at the center of the outbreak.

Travel restrictions expanded to cities with more than 60 million people, while curbs on business spread nationwide. The Lunar New Year holiday was extended to keep factories and offices closed. Nationwide, thousands of restaurants and cinemas have been shut to prevent crowds from gathering.

The rising losses threaten to become a political liability for the ruling Communist Party. Local officials have been ordered to revive business activity but are moving cautiously.

By Sunday, some 1,665 deaths and 68,500 cases had been reported in the two months since the first infections in December.

Economists warn optimism that the disease might be under control is premature. Even if auto manufacturing and other business resumes as planned, activity won’t be back to normal until at least mid-March.

Losses are expected to be so large that forecasters have cut estimates for China’s economic growth.

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