Coronavirus: A view from Holly Chen, our China representative

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Based in Beijing, Holly Chen works with AHDB to put British produce on dinner tables in China. In this article and in the podcast below, Holly describes the impact COVID-19 had on life and business as the country recovers. 

Unfortunately, today, the whole world is all too familiar with the coronavirus. But in China, the first pangs of concern started in late January, when two people living in Beijing, who had travelled to Wuhan, where the virus originated, were confirmed to have Wuhan Pneumonia – as it was originally called.

In the office where I work, there was a lot of talk about whether it was safe to travel on the tube and buses. Those of us who had lived through SARS in 2003 shrugged it off. 

It was not until Doctor Zhong Nanshan, our top expert and a well-known name for his contribution in controlling SARS, announced the transmission from human-to-human – bringing about the subsequent lockdown of Wuhan the day before Chinese New Year on January 24.

Panic buying

What ensued was a great deal of panic buying, shopping for hand sanitisers and face masks, which were quickly out of stock.

Fortunately, the people of Beijing, who were accustomed to the smog every winter, had varying amounts of masks stockpiled at home to deal with the seasonal pollution. Although they are not as good as surgical masks, it was regarded as ‘better than nothing’. These masks got me through the hard times when we were unable to find them in the shops or were too expensive, mainly those imported from Japan and South Korea.

A couple of days after Wuhan went into lockdown, we were due to travel to my hometown for the Chinese New Year holiday. We were forced to cancel our train tickets to Northeast China, resulting in a lot of grumbles from my dad who, like a lot of Chinese residents, did not take it seriously enough at the time.

There was a great deal of confusion as to what should be done for the best. Some of my colleagues and friends that had booked overseas trips debated cancelling their plans, but many feared not getting refunds for flights and hotels.

What followed was stockpiling food, mostly vegetables which were easy to keep such as potatoes, cabbages and radishes.

For meat, pork is really expensive due to a shortage of supply caused by African Swine Fever, so we bought a lot of chicken, duck and fish and limited the number of visits to supermarkets to avoid coming into contact with potential carriers of coronavirus.

Restrictions and controls

Many people began ordering their shopping online but delivery took longer than usual due to a shortage of workers during the Chinese New Year break.

The Chinese New Year holiday was then extended for a week with restaurants and shopping centres remaining closed. Controls and restrictions became tighter and tighter.

All residential compounds required passes which were issued for the control of coronavirus and had to be used going in and out of the complex. People had to wear face masks and had their temperatures measured wherever they went.

As people stayed indoors and cooked meals at home, there was a record number of downloads from some of the major cooking apps.

In China, eating out is the norm and very few people have ovens in their homes as they are not traditionally used in Chinese cooking, so when a cake competition was launched, it was somewhat amusing to see the attempts made by using rice cookers or steaming!

Since eating out is such an important part of life in China, the coronavirus had a major impact on the food service sector. The lockdown meant many of them, maybe up to 80 per cent according to industry insiders, may go out of business.

Exports challenges

Retail sales have surged, with both online and brick-and-mortar stores seeing a big increase in transactions, very similar to the UK and other countries affected by the virus. As a result of this surge, some of the retailers in China have taken on workforces from the temporarily closed restaurants. It is said that this new way of sharing workers may last into the future when the epidemic is over.

When you look at imports and exports in China, congestion at ports in mid-February – again due to a lack of workers and restrictions on movement – brought many challenges. It meant extra costs including containers having to be plugged in, storage, fees for delayed declaration and other issues all impacting our exporters and importers.

Thankfully, the situation is improving gradually as people are returning to work and the government has taken measures to remove or reduce some of the fees, as well as simplifying the custom clearance process to help importers through this difficult time.

However, there is now some concern about the price and delivery lead times as more and more countries are closing borders and the price for some products, such as beef, is going up as a result.

For us in China, there is now light at the end of the tunnel. Normality is starting to return with businesses preparing to reopen and hopefully, schools will begin again soon.

But, like the rest of the world, we will not forget 2020, the huge loss of life, the economic challenges faced by so many and the disruption to our everyday lives, the repercussions of which is likely to be felt for many years to come.

About Holly Chen

Holly joined the China-Britain Business Council in 2000 where she works with the agriculture and food sector. As part of her role, she worked with many UK companies helping them to enter the Chinese market – this included sector bodies such as British Cereals Export, British Potato Council and BPEX before they joined AHDB. Her knowledge and expertise led to her being fully employed by AHDB in 2017 to support the export team with their ongoing activities in China.

Image of staff member Holly Chen

Holly Chen

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Podcast: Life after lockdown in China

In this episode, John Bates talks to Holly about her personal experience during this epidemic and the impact it has caused the country economically and to her personally.

We also hear from Jonathan Eckley, Head of Market Development at AHDB in the Asia Pacific region, who shares some of the upcoming work and opportunities for our UK exporters. 

Further reading