News Brief: Reopening States, China's Economy, Origins Of Coronavirus

Apr 17, 2020
Originally published on April 17, 2020 7:31 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After a lot of made-for-TV toing and froing about who has the authority to reopen the American economy, the White House released new guidance saying it's up to the states.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Which did not stop the president from throwing out a date again. He said yesterday that he thinks some states should be able to open for more business by May 1. Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House pandemic response team said something different.

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DEBORAH BIRX: We did not put a timeline on any of the phases. We want the governors, with the data that they have, community by community, to be setting up those timelines.

MARTIN: To talk about what is in the guidance, we've got NPR's global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman. Hi, Nurith.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So we heard Dr. Birx there saying that there are going to be some phases. What exactly is in these guidelines?

AIZENMAN: Well, they're short on specifics. States are going to have to figure out a lot of this for themselves. But that said, as you say, the proposal is that they open in three stages. To give you a flavor, Phase 1 looks a lot like the current stay-at-home situation, except if you're not in a vulnerable category, like the elderly, you can socialize in groups of less than 10 people. Telework is still encouraged. But employers can bring some people back in the workplace.

Phase 2 - now it's socializing with up to 50 people. Schools reopen. Nonessential travel can resume. Phase 3 - even vulnerable people can go back in public if they keep six feet apart. Everyone's back in the workplace. But still, large venues like churches, sports arenas have to make sure people can sit at a distance. And, all along, states will be keeping an eye on this system the U.S. has for flagging sudden rises in flu-like cases as a kind of early warning sign to alert them if, oops, the virus is spreading again.

MARTIN: So we hear President Trump talking about May 1. But when can states go into phase one?

AIZENMAN: Well, there are criteria that states have to meet before they can start phase one and then again before they can advance to stage 2 and to stage 3. For instance, over the last 14 days, confirmed COVID cases need to be trending down. So do the percentage of tests that are coming back positive and also cases of people with COVID-like or flu-like symptoms. And the states' hospitals have to be able to treat everybody and test their health care workers. But here's the problem. While health specialists say, sure, states need to have a downward trend in their cases before they can open up, that's just one of several targets they say states need to meet. And the rest of those targets aren't in these guidelines.

MARTIN: So what's missing here?

AIZENMAN: For one thing, the guidelines don't say how low your case count needs to get, just that the trend should be downward. Also, in countries that managed to control their outbreaks without resorting to drastic social distancing, the consensus is what made the difference is having these rapid reaction teams that quickly identify anyone who's been infected, trace their contacts, test those people, isolate and quarantine as needed - you know, basically detecting and quashing any new rise in cases before it can start a whole new flare-up, because remember, the virus is still out there. And the vast majority of us remain vulnerable to it. So public health specialists say before states open up, they have to have enough capacity to test everyone who is infected and trace their contacts.

MARTIN: Right. We've heard so much about this. We need testing. We need contact tracing. Do the guidelines say anything about those things?

AIZENMAN: They do note that states need to have that ability. But they don't tell states how to determine if they have enough. And at the press conference last night, officials basically just said that, oh, that's not going to be a problem. But NPR's reporting indicates that it is still a problem. State labs and hospitals tell us they can't get enough chemical reagents, can't get enough swabs. So by that measure, very few, if any, states are ready to open up.

MARTIN: NPR's Nurith Aizenman. Nurith, we appreciate it. Thank you.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. For the first time in decades, China's economy has actually gotten smaller.

INSKEEP: China's government released the numbers yesterday, announcing a 6.8% decline in the first three months of 2020. The coronavirus put an end to almost half a century of constant growth for China, sometimes very rapid growth, growth that made China the world's second-largest economy.

MARTIN: We've got Jonathan Cheng with us. He's the China bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. He joins us from Beijing on Skype. Hey, Jonathan.

JONATHAN CHENG: Hi there.

MARTIN: Can you just give us some context, explain exactly how hard the coronavirus has hit China's economy? We know the number. But what other metrics do you see or can feel that explain this?

CHENG: Well, obviously, China is an important part of the global economy. It's the world's No. 2 economy. And it's grown almost a hundredfold from 1976. That was the end of the Cultural Revolution. That's when Mao Zedong died. And that's when China roughly began its reforms that's led it to where it is today. And so over that whole period of more than four decades, we've never seen China ever have a negative quarter in any case until now.

And, obviously, we knew that the coronavirus was a big deal. It started, you know, hitting China in mid-January. And it's basically shut down the country now for more than two months. So we're a little bit ahead of the curve here. So we knew it was going to be bad. I think the question was, how bad was it? And how honest would the Chinese government be with its numbers? And what we find today is that it has been relatively honest. I mean, negative 6.8% is really bad. We were expecting positive 6% coming into this quarter.

MARTIN: The Chinese government is acknowledging that this is a devastating hit?

CHENG: Yeah, definitely. I mean, they could have - I mean, you know, economists have long been skeptical of Chinese numbers. And it's widely believed that the numbers are massaged a little bit. So if we had seen a number that had said this was a positive quarter, I think most people would've laughed out loud. If they had said negative 1 or negative 2, I think a lot of economists would have said, this is - you know, this is also sugarcoated. But 6.8 is definitely a real solid hit. I mean, again, it's sort of the inverse of what they had been expecting coming into this quarter.

MARTIN: We clearly live in this globalized world - right? - where economies are tied very closely together. What are the likely implications of this drop in economic growth on the U.S., on other countries that are linked economically to China?

CHENG: Well, I mean, we know that, of course, we had a big trade fight between the U.S. and China. It's not over yet. But that really highlighted how closely the two biggest economies in the world are integrated. So the question is, really, what does this, you know, mean for the U.S.? It means that the U.S. is going to get dragged down, too. We're already seeing it, of course. And there's a lot of domestic impact from the shutdowns that we see across the U.S. But there will be a direct impact from China's economy shutting down, as well. It's inevitable when you have the world's No. 2 economy going down 6.8%, as we saw today.

MARTIN: Just really briefly, Jonathan - is China - is the government there proposing any steps to rebound?

CHENG: Yeah. I mean, they say that things are already getting better. And I can say here in Beijing, you can see lights starting to return to normal just a little bit. There's probably going to be some stimulus coming. But nobody is expecting the kind of stimulus that we saw after the financial crisis in 2008. So we don't know whether it's going to be enough. And if infections start to creep up again, all bets are off.

MARTIN: Yeah. Jonathan Cheng of The Wall Street Journal. We appreciate it, Jonathan. Thank you.

CHENG: Thanks for having me.

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MARTIN: OK. While China deals with the economic fallout from COVID-19, there are still a lot of questions about the exact origins of the virus.

INSKEEP: Yeah. As we heard in the previous story, it is hard to check facts coming out of China's government. We do know Wuhan, China, suffered the first outbreak. But the lack of transparency has fueled speculation and conspiracy theories. And the Trump administration says it is now working to find answers.

MARTIN: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is with us. Good morning, Greg. So what is the U.S. government now saying about the origins of the virus?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, we've seen a distinct change in tone this week. The focus has been on the Wuhan wet market. And other narratives in the past weeks, months were seen as speculative or even outright conspiracy theories. But in these last few days, there's more talk about the possibility that a naturally occurring virus might have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studies bat viruses. This has been stated most explicitly by the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. He cited the Wuhan Institute by name, noting that it's not that far from the wet market. And he didn't offer details and said there's still lots to learn.

MARTIN: This lab - I mean, have U.S. officials reached any preliminary conclusions?

MYRE: No, they have not. I've been asking around the intelligence community and among military officials. And they've been more cautious in their language than Pompeo. The word that keeps cropping up is inconclusive. The intelligence community is digging hard. And they haven't trusted the Chinese explanations. And they see this ongoing secretive behavior as very suspicious. But they're not prepared to make any final assessments right now. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, addressed this question at the Pentagon this week.

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MARK MILLEY: It should be no surprise to you that we've taken a keen interest in that. And we've had a lot of intelligence take a hard look at that. And I would just say, at this point, it's inconclusive, although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural. But we don't know for certain.

MYRE: So the keyword here is natural, which has two meanings. This could mean it turned up organically at the wet market, which - the theory we've heard most often. But it could also mean that it was a naturally occurring virus that was being studied in this Wuhan lab, and it accidentally infected a worker, who spread it outside the lab. And the third thing we should note is this phrasing also indicates the U.S. doesn't have evidence that it was a manmade bioweapon.

MARTIN: How's China responding to this talk in the U.S.?

MYRE: Well, not well. The top scientist at this lab has vigorously denied the lab had any involvement. We've heard top Chinese scientists say that, while, yes, there were cases at the Wuhan market originally, they say it's far from clear that the virus originated there or even in China at all. Our NPR colleague Emily Feng has been in Wuhan. And she says it's quite common on the street to hear the Chinese blaming the U.S. as the source. And they often cite these world military games that were held in Wuhan last October, an explanation that, obviously, doesn't fly in the U.S.

MARTIN: So Greg, what are the potential consequences if the origin of the virus is traced to this lab or any lab rather than a public market? What does that mean?

MYRE: Well, potentially, there could be lots of ramifications. China has undertaken this huge effort to reshape the narrative. It's presenting itself as overcoming the virus, as restarting its economy despite the bad numbers we heard today and also making protective gear to help the world. So this attempt to lead a global recovery would be undercut if it turns out that China's been engaged in a cover-up of some sort. And remember, the U.S.-China relationship was very strained before the coronavirus. And this could get even worse. So a lot could hinge on determining exactly how this virus began.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre. We appreciate you following this story for us, Greg. Thanks.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.