National | FOCUS

Anxiety about employees trapped in Wuhan grows at Japanese firms

by Tomoyuki Tachikawa

Kyodo, JIJI

With public transportation services suspended in Wuhan, anxiety is mounting over Japanese who might be trapped in the city at the origin of the deadly new coronavirus, which was confirmed in a third patient in Japan on Saturday.

Many Japanese companies operating in China have begun to take measures to protect the safety and health of their employees, such as urging them to avoid crowds and instructing them to go to a hospital right away if they develop a fever.

But their chief concern is whether Wuhan, with a population of more than 10 million, will become an “inaccessible land,” a clerk at a Japanese logistics firm said. “They would be unable to get food and necessities down the road,” he said, referring to the workers in the city.

Some medical experts have recently warned that the new coronavirus is more infectious than the one that caused SARS, the illness that spread through China in 2003, sickening 8,098 people and killing 774 around the globe.

Starting Thursday, just before the start of the Lunar New Year holidays, authorities in Wuhan suspended all public transportation, including buses, trains, airplanes and ferries, in an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In the third recorded case in Japan, a tourist from Wuhan visiting Tokyo has tested positive for the coronavirus, the health ministry said Saturday. The woman, who lives in Wuhan and is in her 30s, is visiting Japan for the Lunar New Year holidays, a ministry official said.

According to the Japan External Trade Organization, there are about 160 Japanese companies and nearly 500 Japanese residing in Wuhan, located around 1,000 kilometers south of Beijing.

A Japanese businessman living in Wuhan who is currently traveling in southern China said he is effectively stranded because of the flight cancellations.

“For the time being, I may be compelled to work in a different city. I’m worried about my colleagues left in Wuhan,” he said. “Unless they have their own cars, they would struggle to secure daily essentials due to the suspension of public transportation.”

A prolonged outbreak is likely to deal a blow to the supply chains of Japanese firms such as automakers and makers of electronics.

“We’ll closely watch the disease’s economic impacts with high interest,” industry minister Hiroshi Kajiyama told a news conference in Tokyo on Friday.

Wuhan is at the core of supply chains in Asia, bringing together cutting-edge factories that make semiconductors and other high-tech components.

Some 160 Japanese companies operate in the city, including Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., Denso Corp. and Daikin Industries Ltd.

A large number of Japanese firms have already decided to ban business trips to Wuhan and have asked their employees in the city to work at home.

Management personnel at the firms are concerned that they may be forced to suspend operations for a long period if the disease continues to spread.

During the Lunar New Year holidays through next Thursday, the biggest celebration in China, most residents are on vacation, with hundreds of millions of people traveling domestically and internationally.

Delivery services using smartphone apps have been widely embraced in China, but “they would not work well, given that stores and restaurants close and drivers return to their hometowns,” said a Japanese housewife who has lived in Beijing for three years.

A JETRO official in Wuhan said, “It seems that many people are rushing to grocery stores.”

He voiced concern over how Japanese left in the city will get by if logistics services are halted. “We need to consider how to obtain medicines, food and water for them,” the official said.

In China, fears also are escalating that the infection will spread after the holidays, as Chinese health authorities have concluded that the new coronavirus is being transmitted among humans while the origin of it has yet to be identified.

Medical experts have called for people to wash their hands, gargle and wear masks as a preventive step because influenza and colds are common at this time of year. In Beijing, masks have sold out at many supermarkets and convenience stores.

“It is now difficult to get masks in Beijing. I personally think that if people in Wuhan are put in a situation where they cannot get masks, the infection would expand further there,” said a physician living in the capital who declined to disclose his name.

“If the virus continues to be transmitted from person to person, it may evolve and become highly virulent. The Chinese government should take action in order to ensure that Wuhan does not become isolated,” he added.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged that his leadership will implement “decisive” measures to curb the spread of the virus.

Yutaka Yokoi, Japan’s ambassador to China, told reporters on Tuesday in Beijing, “We will make more efforts to gather information and provide it in a timely and appropriate manner.”

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