How Beijing keeps 1.4bn peo­ple fed as virus clogs roads

Muscat Daily - - WORLD -

Beijing, China - Among the log­jammed traf­fic try­ing to en­ter Beijing last week on a high­way from the south were dozens of trucks car­ry­ing food to the cap­i­tal, stuck in line as health of­fi­cials stopped each ve­hi­cle to screen the oc­cu­pants for signs of coro­n­avirus.

In the city, su­per­mar­kets were emp­ty­ing fast as pan­icked shop­pers rushed to stock up on pro­vi­sions. Days ear­lier, the gov­ern­ment had closed Hubei prov­ince, the epi­cen­tre of the new virus and a nexus of trans­porta­tion in the cen­tre of China.

Keep­ing the na­tion’s 1.4bn peo­ple fed is one of the rul­ing Com­mu­nist Party’s vi­tal chal­lenges, a task that was tough enough even be­fore the virus, due to an out­break of H1N1 and the ef­fects of decades of pol­lu­tion and ur­ban ex­pan­sion.

Within days of the panic buy­ing, author­i­ties had opened spe­cial thor­ough­fares for es­sen­tial food and med­i­cal items called ‘Green Pas­sages’.

“Any food price spike could lead to so­cial un­rest, and that’s why the gov­ern­ment gives this top pri­or­ity,” said Ma Wen­feng, se­nior an­a­lyst with Beijing Ori­ent Agri-business Con­sul­tant

Ltd. “Food is more im­por­tant, even than masks.”

The mea­sures are work­ing in the cap­i­tal. A visit to a su­per­mar­ket in Beijing this week showed that fresh veg­eta­bles and fruit, which had been the first to go, are now piled high on shelves.

“We have no wor­ries any­more and we can get any­thing we need,” said Liu Ying, a woman in her 50s who was shop­ping at a su­per­mar­ket in south­ern Beijing.

The Green Pas­sages helped ease prices that had spiked in some ar­eas, Lian Weil­iang, deputy head of the Na­tional De­vel­op­ment and Re­form Com­mis­sion, said in a state broad­cast on Mon­day.

Av­er­age veg­etable prices were still 11 per cent higher on

Thurs­day com­pared with be­fore the hol­i­days.

Be­cause the out­break spread around the time of the lu­nar new year fes­ti­val, many cit­i­zens had al­ready stocked enough food for the hol­i­days, so the panic buy­ing at some su­per­mar­kets was more ‘psy­cho­log­i­cal’, said Ma at Beijing Ori­ent.

More­over, the coun­try has huge re­serves of ba­sic grains such as rice and wheat, stored around the coun­try in gov­ern­ment si­los.

China’s Na­tional Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Food and Strate­gic Re­serves asked lo­cal gov­ern­ments to en­sure sup­plies of grains and ed­i­ble oil to pre­vent short­ages, panic buy­ing or price spikes, and said it will re­lease items from re­serves if nec­es­sary. There’s enough rice and wheat in gov­ern­ment stock­piles to feed the pub­lic for a year, Lian said.

Other prod­ucts present a big­ger chal­lenge. China re­lies on im­ports for some foods, es­pe­cially soy­beans and ed­i­ble oils.

China’s Com­merce Min­istry said the coun­try will boost im­ports of meat and other prod­ucts to meet any deficit, while state-owned food com­pa­nies Cofco and Sino­grain have been or­dered to re­sume pro­duc­tion to boost sup­plies, state me­dia Xin­hua re­ported.

The Asian na­tion agreed to buy US$40bn to US$50bn a year of US farm prod­ucts for the next two years, mostly soy­beans and meat, as part of the phase-one trade deal signed last month.

Still, the coro­n­avirus may tem­per the na­tion’s de­mand for some prod­ucts. Peo­ple are eat­ing out less, shun­ning restau­rants along with other pub­lic places. Din­ing venues and food stalls are among the big­gest users of meats as well as prod­ucts like palm oil.

About 5km from the su­per­mar­ket is a street of eater­ies with a small noo­dle restau­rant. The lights are off and a sign on the door says ‘closed’. Owner Ji

Jing­ping is wait­ing for the gov­ern­ment to tell her when she can open again, though that might not make much dif­fer­ence.

“Even if you open, no­body dares to eat out­side,” Ji said. “There are many restau­rants like us. All the restau­rants along the street are closed.”

Ji is still pay­ing her 20 em­ploy­ees and 50,000 yuan in monthly rent and says it may be even harder for big restau­rants with many work­ers and ex­pen­sive rents.

The Lu­nar New Year hol­i­day has ended, but the streets in Beijing re­main mostly de­serted. Restau­rants, pub­lic parks and cin­e­mas are closed.

Vis­i­tors to su­per­mar­kets and cit­i­zens go­ing home to their com­mu­ni­ties now typ­i­cally need to get their tem­per­a­tures tested be­fore en­ter­ing.

To pre­vent the spread of the virus, most Chi­nese prov­inces banned fes­ti­val cel­e­bra­tions, par­ties and din­ing at restau­rants dur­ing the big­gest hol­i­day of the year.

More than a dozen cities and prov­inces ex­tended the Lu­nar New Year break by a week as part of these ef­forts.

(AFP)

A woman wear­ing a pro­tec­tive mask shops in Beijing on Fe­bru­ary 1

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