Mar 30, 2020

Learning from China - experiences of our Chinese colleagues

The global coronavirus crisis

"The epidemic has passed its peak in China, fortunately none of our colleagues here in the country has been infected with the dangerous virus," reports Liqiang Liang, Managing Director of Beckhoff China. The virus was the first to break out in the People's Republic of China and has been spreading rapidly since the end of 2019. Liqiang Liang from Beijing and his colleague Xingkai Ma from the Beckhoff China headquarters in Shanghai, report how they and their colleagues have fared with the epidemic in their country in recent months.

From 20 January onwards, the government issued an urgent warning to the population about the new type of corona virus, which can cause severe lung diseases in some people, particularly the elderly and those who are previously ill. In order to contain the virus, the government completely sealed off the city of Wuhan as early as 23 January, where the corona virus was first identified. "Consistent measures were taken very quickly and the so-called lockdown of the city was initiated," reports Xingkai Ma. Many other provinces and above all the densely populated metropolises of millions followed suit.

"China is a very large country. All provinces have issued their own rules, depending on how endangered a region is and how the number of cases develops. There are several press conferences every day by the central government but also by the provincial governments, who are constantly updating the measures," Liqiang Liang explains.

Strict measures since end of January

In order to keep the usually increased travel volume during the Chinese New Year low, the government extended the holidays by three days. Many cities were completely shut down. Specific administrations were set up for the individual residential areas in order to limit contacts and the risk of infection. People with confirmed coronavirus infection, as well as all suspected cases and contacts of infected persons, had to go into strict domestic quarantine. In concrete terms, this means that they were not allowed to leave their house or apartment as a matter of principle. Special neighbourhood committees were set up to do the shopping for all infected and potentially infected persons as well as their contact persons in their area of responsibility. "You order and pay in advance by app. The purchases are then put outside the door," says Xingkai Ma. And he continues: "The only exception to leaving the house are doctor’s appointments. These have to be registered with the neighborhood committee and agreed upon. Outdoor activities are completely prohibited during the quarantine - no walks with the family, no jogging and no personal social contacts."

These measures have a very radical effect, but the country has nevertheless been able to prevent even worse levels of virus spread through consistent and strict action. In addition, the Chinese authorities are also showing other countries that loosely set recommendations or only partially implemented measures still leave opportunities for infection.

The quarantine measures do not apply to all persons who are not infected or who are among the potentially infected. "We have been urged by the government to stay inside the residences. If we have to leave the house to go to work or go shopping, we have to wear a face mask and take our temperature regularly. Cinemas, restaurants, hairdressers and all shops that are not necessary for daily needs have been closed. Further, we weren't allowed to receive visitors so that contacts between people were kept to a minimum," Xingkai Ma reports.

How Beckhoff China experiences the state of emergency

In the beginning, China, like most other countries, had to deal with official recommendations. Companies should implement comprehensive hygiene measures to protect their employees from possible infection. After the extended holidays from 23 January to 2 February, many provinces had a regulation that companies had to be closed from 3 to 9 February. "From 10 February, we voluntarily extended the home office for our employees in Shanghai until February 16, and in Beijing, in turn, it was officially ordered," Xingkai Ma says. Our office in the particularly affected city of Wuhan is still closed, and it will still take some time until our six colleagues can return from the home office. Since 17 February, however, most of the 22 Beckhoff offices have been back in operation.

However, this requires special permits, which the companies must apply for from the authorities, together with all the health data of their employees. “Only those who receive a permit and also comply with the strictest hygiene measures for their employees are allowed to work in their company,” says Liqiang Liang. The employees will then also receive special permits for their way to work. At the headquarters in Shanghai, which is located in a large industrial park, temperature measurements of the employees are taken at all entrances. In addition, disinfectants are provided on a large scale. Still today, all employees avoid bus and train journeys. Most of them travel to work by car, scooter, bicycle or taxi. Some go on foot.
"We are currently in a kind of reduced mode, which we want to maintain until the end of March," says Liqiang Liang, adding, "We do this voluntarily to protect our colleagues. We have divided our colleagues into two groups, who come to the office alternately every other day. This means that 50% of the employees work in the home office and 50% in the office. Both groups should avoid meeting each other if possible, in order to further reduce the potential risk of infection, to be able to precisely limit the contact persons in case of an infection and to take necessary quarantine measures".

Economic effects are currently limited

"Fortunately, the crisis has not economically hit us as hard as many other Chinese companies," Xingkai Ma reports: "In the worst time of crisis in January and February, of course our sales declined slightly. We are dependent on whether our customers’ companies are able to work, i.e. whether production is up and running, or not. So far, business in March has been going well and we expect to be back on the growth track soon". To ensure that our Chinese subsidiary can continue to supply all customers reliably, our colleagues are currently looking for additional storage capacity close to the headquarters in Shanghai. Xingkai Ma knows: "Most customers are afraid that we will not be able to deliver due to international safety regulations or freight restrictions. But we can reassure them, as we already have large storage capacities."

Slowly back to normality

While companies are working to revive the economy, public life is still at a standstill in many parts of the country. Schools and childcare facilities are still closed. "In some parts of the country, they are due to reopen in early April," Liqiang Liang says. Xingkai Ma adds: "But so far there are no official announcements about this in Shanghai. It could become a challenge for parents if they are allowed to go back into the office, but schools and kindergartens remain closed. Many pupils are currently being taught digitally and are learning the school curriculum in online courses using computers or tablets."

Although some rules of conduct are now being loosen a little because, according to the government, there are only a small number of new infections, freedom of movement is still restricted. Via the mobile phone app “Health Code”, for example, the Chinese carry a digital health card with them. This card permanently determines the current status of a person based on the individual movement profile and temperature measurements taken by official entities. Using colored QR codes based on the traffic light system (green, yellow, red), people can “identify themselves” in terms of their health, for example on their way to work in apartment buildings or supermarkets. “If someone has a yellow QR code on their mobile phone, they must report immediately to the authorities. A red code means that you are a potential risk taker, for example because you have been in a particularly affected area. Then you must immediately go into domestic isolation. If the code is green, everything is fine,” explains Xingkai Ma.

How will life change after the coronavirus in China?

The Chinese government has severely restricted air traffic since the outbreak of the virus. Aircrafts that are to land in Beijing will be diverted over surrounding, less densely populated provinces to screen passengers for the coronavirus and possible risk factors before they enter the country. That is the only way they can continue their journey to the capital. Flight passengers to Shanghai may have to spend a few nights in specially equipped quarantine hotels before they can continue their journey. Domestic travelers, however, must also expect a subsequent 14-day quarantine, depending on the risk situation in the cities they visit. "There is a permanent fear that the virus will return, e.g. by travelers from abroad, and that we will experience a second wave of infection," reports Xingkai Ma. "People don't travel like they used to. Anyone who doesn't have to travel stays in their city and very carefully considers about which routes are really necessary," Liqiang Liang adds.

In addition, the coronavirus crisis shows that technologies like 5G, IoT, Big Data and cloud applications are becoming increasingly important. "Since we did all our daily shopping via app during the curfew and had plenty of time for online shopping, e-commerce and express logistics have experienced a real boom. I think our consumer behavior will change fundamentally in the future. Things like home office and digital education would not be possible without all the technologies I mentioned. But they have helped to cushion even greater economic disasters. Apps like Health Code are also important tools for ensuring the health of such a large population. All of these developments probably mark the beginning of a digitalization process that will now be even faster," Xingkai Ma says.

Personal tips from Liqiang Liang

"If there is one thing we have learned, it is that you have to be consistent. The best measures are useless if people don't follow them," Liqiang Liang says. He further adds: "The only thing that really helps is to isolate yourself completely for a while to stop the spread of the virus. That means no parties, no visits to friends and relatives, and no visits to your own home. Anyone who can work from home should not go to the office and public transport should be avoided at all costs".

At present, some employees from Beckhoff China are working on the procurement of disinfectants, respiratory masks and other medical goods that are currently in short supply in other parts of the world. At Hans Beckhoff’s request, they are to send them to hospitals in countries currently severely affected by the corona Virus.