Businesses in Wuhan, China face new worries after COVID eases

WUHAN, China, Dec 12 (Reuters) – Infections are still delivering fresh shocks to many small businesses in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, despite the easing of the strictest restrictions last week.

Hopes for a brighter post-lockdown outlook are being dashed, at least for now, with the sick and those fearful of infection staying home, with little sign of the government stepping in to help.

“I just can’t go on,” Zhu Chongping, 60, said as he looked around his empty restaurant, which serves local cuisine in the city of 11 million that began the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago.

“I’m losing money every day, a thousand yuan a day.”

The challenge for small businessmen like Zhu underscores Beijing’s abandonment of tough COVID policies, promising to boost economic recovery next year, which could instead dampen growth in coming months as infections surge.

He added that most restaurants were closed or empty last Saturday, and that business in what was otherwise a bustling food street was the worst since Zhu first opened its doors to customers 30 years ago, and he looked desperate.

After unprecedented protests, the outlook after “zero COVID” relief is even bleaker than during the city’s 76-day lockdown in 2020, because his landlord has not offered rent discounts this year, he said.

Rent subsidies and consumer vouchers were among the measures introduced by local governments to support businesses at the time, but there has been little sign of that this year.

“This street is considered a top location in Wuhan,” Zhu added. “There’s nobody now. You can imagine other places where it’s worse.”

The only queue for a few hundred meters was outside a pharmacy, where people waited to stock up on medicines to treat symptoms of the coronavirus.

“My business is hard to sustain,” said the owner of a bag shop near Hanzheng Street, one of China’s largest wholesale clothing markets and site of massive anti-lockdown protests last month.

“We’ll have to see what happens next year…” the 48-year-old, surnamed Liang, added. “We’ll have to see what happens to foot traffic. If that’s still the case next year, suppliers will have to leave.”

Many other shopkeepers simply told Reuters they had zero or “no business.”

The scarcity of customers is having knock-on effects on other industries, further hurting growth as China grapples with an economic downturn this year.

“There are not many new stores and businesses, so we can’t continue our business and face layoffs,” said an advertising company boss who did not want to be named.

People just don’t have much money left, said a Wuhan taxi driver surnamed Sun, adding that the subsidies made the 2020 lockdown more manageable than this year’s measures.

“Because of all these lockdowns, I’ve had nothing for weeks,” he said. “Now, it’s a little bit better, but the money I make is only enough to pay off the company’s monthly taxi rent.”

Adding pressure to a slowing economy, surveys showed factory activity shrank in November amid widespread COVID-19 containment measures, while imports and exports fell at the fastest pace in at least 2-1/2 years.

Chen Zhiwu, a professor of finance at the University of Hong Kong, said he felt the authorities hoped that within three to four months infected people would have enough immunity to allow small and medium-sized enterprises to rebound.

“Of course, in the process, the country will undergo shock therapy,” he added.

“I hope they can take the hit.”

Edited by Brenda Goh and Clarence Fernandez

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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