GM and Ford among firms curbing China travel as Wuhan virus spreads

By BLOOMBERG | 24 January 2020

Wuhan has a population of 11 million and is five times the size of London. — SCMPpic

NEW YORK: General Motors and Ford are among a growing number of global corporations operating in China that are limiting travel or forgoing long-held traditions around Lunar New Year to protect their employees against a spreading deadly virus outbreak.

The carmakers, along with HSBC and other firms, are restricting non-essential travel to Wuhan, the epicentre of the contagion that so far has killed at least 25 people and seen cases spread across the region and even to the US. The number of confirmed infected people in mainland China rose to 830 as of Jan 23,

China has kicked off a nationwide screening to tackle the outbreak of the new respiratory virus, with hundreds of millions set to travel during the looming Lunar New Year holiday.

Social media giant Tencent Holdings Ltd was among Chinese corporations that responded swiftly to reduce individual contact.

It called off a longstanding annual tradition where top executives hand out Lunar New Year red envelopes in person to employees.

The operator of WeChat is suspending travel to Wuhan along with brokerage Citic Securities Co., according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named as they aren’t authorised to speak publicly.

Wuhan is a city of 11 million people and is five times the size of London.

The World Health Organisation has declared the new coronavirus an emergency in China but stopped short of calling it an international public health emergency, a designation used for complex epidemics that can cross borders.

Wuhan clampdown

China has now halted travel from Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. About 4,000 people in Wuhan may be currently infected, based on the number of known cases and the estimated mean time between infection and detection, according to a study by Neil Ferguson, a researcher at Imperial College London.

“We have issued a global travel advisory for Wuhan,” Detroit-based GM, which has employees from its joint partners in the area, said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “If someone needs to go there, travel has to be business critical and they must get managerial approval .”

Ford, which doesn’t operate in Wuhan, advised its employees not to travel to the city, saying via email that it is “watching the issue and will adapt, as necessary.” Ford’s Chinese operations are located in Chongqing and Nanjing, which are about 900km and 650km, respectively from Wuhan.

Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., also known as Foxconn, is mulling contingency plans to deal with the outbreak, founder Terry Gou said.

The firm, best known for assembling iPhone components, asked Wuhan-based staff and their families to stay away from a corporate gathering on Wednesday. Gou warned that China lacks enough drugs and medical equipment to handle a coronavirus pandemic.

The rumour mill is starting to churn in Hong Kong, where large parts of the population are now wearing face masks and hand sanitisers are readily available at offices, apartment buildings and hotels. The outbreak of the SARS virus in 2003 is still fresh in people’s memories.

Keeping clean

A number of firms, including German carmaker Volkswagen AG, have issued employees advice on how to avoid contagion, including urging them to wash their hands. A VW spokesman said production at its joint ventures in China is unaffected.

FedEx Corp. is supplying surgical masks and alcohol wipes to its employees and disinfecting facilities in areas where outbreaks have happened.

“We are also encouraging our team members to take any signs of illness seriously and seek medical attention as needed,” the delivery giant said via email.

The disease is so far considered less deadly than SARS, which killed 800 people and stunted economic growth across the region.

“The next few weeks will be very important not just for containing the outbreak but also to help us understand how this virus behaves,” Sanjaya Senanayake, associate professor of medicine at the Australian National University, told Bloomberg Television.

“It’s really important for countries around the world to make sure they’re prepared for this.”

Concerns about the virus extend beyond health to its impact on the economy, with warnings that China’s fragile stabilisation could be at risk.

Mounting fears about the outbreak have roiled financial markets, and the Shanghai Composite Index had the worst end to a Lunar Year in its three-decade history.

The virus is believed to have emerged last month in a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan, spreading from infected animals to humans.