China’s Recovery: Look But Don’t Stare

On Thursday, China’s Civil Aviation Administration massively reduced international flights. Each Chinese airline is allowed one flight per week to any international destination, and international airlines are only allowed a single route to China, with one flight per week. The country also is indefinitely barring international arrivals, even those with valid visas or residence permits.

These developments follow many headlines touting evidence that life in China is getting back to normal, or at least a new normal. On March 19, Wuhan reported no new cases of COVID19. And in travel, earlier this week ADARA reported an uptick in searches and bookings for flights to and within China.

While China seeks to isolate itself to prevent importing new COVID-19 cases, many are looking to its slowing spread as promising news in general, and for the travel industry. I have even heard people in travel use China’s timeline – with the outbreak clearly serious by January 1 – as an indication that global travel could be on the upswing by June. In fact, China’s apparent gradual recovery does not indicate that the rest of the world will move on a similar timeline, for a few big reasons. For one, it’s hard to trust the reported numbers. Additionally, the measures China’s taken are not being implemented elsewhere.

China’s government data is notoriously unreliable

As someone who works with Chinese government data, I compare the experience to using a book of matches to try and navigate through a pitch black forest. Data usually rolls up from cities to provinces to the central government, with a great deal of pressure to show certain trends. When I look at hotel data each year, for example, the math on average daily rates/occupancy/RevPAR never line up as they should. I gather the hotel data, as health experts are gathering this COVID-19 data, because it’s what I have, but I cannot base hotel market sizing just on that.

In the case of COVID-19, the clearest indication of the politicization of China’s government data is the story of the spike that occurred around Valentine’s day.

In the chart below, that jump you see is the number of reported cases going from roughly 44,800 on February 11 to 59,900 on February 12, and then 66,400 on February 13. Also on the 13th, China sacked the party chiefs of Hubei and Wuhan, along with two top provincial health officials, setting their replacements up to preside over a flattening curve, shoring up government legitimacy in unstable times.

China’s social distancing/quarantine was extreme

As I watch friends and colleagues in some of the US’ most restricted locations (New York, Bay Area, Washington DC) adjust to our life under stay-home or shelter-in-place orders (and as I adjust myself), I don’t think they are aware that they still have much more freedom of movement than many in China had for several weeks. I go running daily. My friends and colleagues in the US go grocery shopping as they please. At the height of the lockdown in China (6-8 weeks, depending on the city, but longer and stricter in Wuhan), in many cities, households were only allowed to have one member go out every two or three days. (Peter Hessler in the New Yorker: Life on Lockdown in China)

In the US, not only are restrictions more lax, but half of its states still have not closed non-essential businesses or issued an order urging people to stay home. So with the coronavirus radiating out via the US’ major ports of entry for the past two months, and with much looser and less widespread restrictions, there is little reason to believe the US will quell the virus as quickly as China seems to have done.

Temperature Checks and Restaurant Distancing: Would it work in your city?

As China seeks to come out from its lockdown, it is taking measures that will be harder to implement in the US. Since late January, moving around major Chinese cities has meant submitting to temperature checks every time you cross a threshold. Go into a bank, a restaurant, a grocery store, or back into your residential compound, and your temperature is taken. Receptiveness to such monitoring will vary across cultures. I can’t imagine it going over well in much of the United States.

Restaurants reopened as early as mid-February in some Chinese cities, which I’m sure sounds like music to New York restaurant workers’ ears. But in China, this has been accompanied by strict (not necessarily consistent) distancing measures that would make operating a theater or restaurant in New York prohibitively expensive. I see updates on the new rules on social media and they change quickly, and vary not only between cities but also between districts within cities. They generally involve regulations such as a low maximum capacity, a small number of people allowed per table, or empty tables required between groups. It’s one way to start getting a city slowly back up and running, but not financially feasible for many restaurants in the long run. Mandated spacing also presents challenges for other activities and attractions that draw travelers to cities.

There are several other reasons why China’s trajectory is not indicative of what the US’ or Europe’s will be. Its governance and the structure of most cities, with large gated and guarded residential compounds the norm, mean that it can put strict measures in place quickly to regulate movement. It also is a huge country that, while certainly dependent on its connections with the rest of the world, can be quite productive without international travel.

This pandemic has been a powerful reminder of how interconnected we are across the globe. If political leaders in the US and Europe had understood better their connection to China, we would be in a much better place than we are right now. But it also reveals, one by one, how each country’s public health system, politics, and culture make it uniquely vulnerable to or uniquely strong against it. There are opportunities to learn from those that experience it first, but the story will be different in each country. And China in particular is not a great indicator for what’s to come in Europe or the United States.