Each morning as Wang Yimeng passes through the checkpoint at her residential compound in Beijing, she asks the people working there the same questions: “When will the checkpoints be removed? When can I have my breakfast stand back?”
Like thousands of others in the Chinese capital, the 64-year-old makes a basic living as a street vendor, selling hot egg pancakes for about 10 yuan (US$1.40) a time to people on their way to work.
Or at least she used to, before Covid-19, the deadly disease spread by the coronavirus, devastated people’s routines and her livelihood with it.
Since early last month, all of the gates to the residential area where she used to pitch her stall have been closed. The access points are manned by community workers and volunteers who check people’s body temperatures entering and leaving, and Wang was told she could no longer sell there.
“They told me I shouldn’t stand in the way of the government’s disease control work,” she said. “Community cadres asked me to be cooperative, or there’d be consequences. It was a warning.”
Before the controls were introduced Wang made about 2,000 yuan a month, enough for her to put food on the table and pay for the medicines her wheelchair-bound husband needs.
“I don’t complain, because we are still lucky compared to people who died of the disease,” she said.
“I just pray for life to go back to normal as soon as possible.”
The first reports of the coronavirus outbreak came in December, with Wuhan, the capital of central China’s Hubei province, thought to be the epicentre, but that has yet to be verified. Since then, Covid-19 has spread around the world, infecting more than 230,000 people and killing close to 10,000.
Like many cities across China, Beijing introduced measures to try and contain the outbreak, including closing schools and business, and restricting travel. The economic impact has been huge, but the city is gradually trying to get back to normal.
The problem now, is that although the number of confirmed cases within China has slumped – there were no new cases reported on Thursday or Friday – as people return from isolation and quarantine elsewhere, some are bringing the pathogen back with them.
For the self-employed and those on low incomes, it is a hard pill to swallow, but people are determined to fight on.
Earlier this week, Li Zhi was told he could return to work as a hairstylist at a salon in Beijing that had been closed for the past two months.
After being visited by officials from seven different government departments, Li’s boss was told he could reopen the salon as long as there were never more than five people – including staff – in the 60 square metre (645 sq ft) premises, that all customers were given temperature checks and that it was kept well disinfected.
“Business has been quite slow,” Li said. “I guess many customers are cautious as cutting hair involves a lot of close contact.”
Despite the lack of customers – even in the hours just after most people have finished work, which used to be the peak period – Li said it was still good to be out of his flat and spending time with his workmate.
“My wife and I have been stuck in a small apartment for the past two months, living on nothing but instant noodles,” he said.
“I have no savings. So now at least I have a sense of security, and hopefully I can get some wages later this month.”
As a 20-something, Li was born into a prosperous China and has not had to suffer the financial hardships of his parents and grandparents.
“It wasn’t difficult to earn money in this industry, and much easier to spend it,” he said. “To me, money is like running water, left hand in and right hand out.”
But the spread of Covid-19 has been a massive jolt to China’s economy. In the first two months of the year, largely due to the nationwide shutdowns and business restrictions, retail sales fell by more than 20 per cent from the same period of 2019, while fixed-asset investment slumped 24.5 per cent and industrial output dropped by 13.5 per cent – all three numbers the worst on record.
Meanwhile, China’s unemployment ratio, a key parameter used by Beijing’s policymakers to gauge the health of the economy, jumped to 6.2 per cent for January and February, from 5.2 per cent in December and 5.3 per cent a year earlier. The figure is also an all-time high, although the survey has only been around since 2016.
“I’m lucky that I still have a job,” Li said, “Many of my colleagues went back to their hometowns and have been stranded there because of the traffic restrictions.
“Some of them quickly ran out of money and are now having a difficult time trying to borrow from friends using [social media platform] WeChat, so they can buy a train ticket and get back to Beijing,” he said.
Hu Xingdou, an independent political economist, said that while the health risks of the Covid-19 pandemic applied to everyone, it was the poor who were most affected by the economic fallout.
“The impact on temporary workers, low-income families and grass-roots employees is much more severe, compared to richer people,” he said.
“And their ability to withstand risk is very weak. If the restrictive measures are not revoked in time, their lives will become tragedies.”
According to a recent report by research company Gavekal Dragonomics, the travel restrictions introduced after the Lunar New Holiday that prevented Chinese migrant workers returning to their places of employment probably cost them in the region of 800 billion yuan in lost wages in February and March alone.
If the money lost by the self-employed were added, the figure could balloon to 1.5 trillion yuan, or between 3 and 4 per cent of China’s total household disposable income, it said.
As he chewed on a simple steamed bun he had bought for his dinner, Li was trying to stay positive.
“Hopefully I’ll get my basic salary of 1,000 yuan this month,” he said with a weak smile.
“Then at least I’ll be able to buy some pork for my wife.”
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This article At least we didn’t die: Beijing’s poorest battle Covid-19 and unemployment first appeared on South China Morning Post