New Chinatown in Joburg deserted amid coronavirus fears
Some of the few who have ventured out onto the streets are wearing surgical masks in fear of the coronavirus, which is yet to make landfall in South Africa.
“People are just staying away, they would rather stay at home and wait for the situation to improve,” says Clive Kuan, who is in charge of environmental affairs with the Chinatown Johannesburg Community Committee.
It’s Chinese nationals who are staying away. Some are in self-imposed quarantine for 14 days, having returned from China, locking themselves in the flats that line Derrick Avenue.
One business owner, who doesn’t want to be named, says it is the worst business has been on the street in 20 years.
“So many restaurants were closed last week, many only opened again yesterday, “I hear people are reducing staff and that is sad.”
The Chinese patrons keep these restaurants going during the week. In supermarkets, staff work wearing masks.
“It is just a precaution,” an employee emphasises. As with the area’s restaurants, business is not good.
“Business is down, but people shouldn’t be scared as there is no virus here,” says another employee.
The economic pinch is even being felt by the local travel agency.
“The number of people flying to China is down, but this time of year is quiet, because it is just after the Chinese New Year,” says Martin Chi, of ERM travel.
Chinese New Year celebrations were supposed to take place early this month in Chinatown but were cancelled. The official reason was to show solidarity over the spread of the pandemic in China. The festival typically brings thousands of revellers.
But it is the notably absent busloads of Chinese tourists that are a worry, not only for Chinatown but South Africa as a whole.
On Thursday Pricewaterhousecoopers released a report which predicted that the loss of Chinese tourism because of the coronavirus outbreak could cost the economy R200million and 1000 jobs - if there was a more than a 15% decline in the number of Chinese nationals visiting South Africa.
The report stated that in 2018, 97 000 Chinese tourists visited SA and each visitor on average spent R11 500 in the country and stayed longer than the average shopper.
“China has a burgeoning middle class opting to spend money internationally and anecdotal evidence suggests that Chinese tourists in SA spend a lot of money on jewellery and other luxury goods.”
While such epidemics are short lived, the coronavirus outbreak is likely to have a negative effect on China’s economic growth and this would have a knock-on effect on South Africa.
“According to research by the International Monetary Fund, a one percentage point drop in Chinese growth would reduce South African growth by 0.2 percentage points,” says the report.
So far there is no indication of when the epidemic will end or if it will reach South Africa.
However on Thursday the medical journal The Lancet said that South Africa, Algeria and Egypt had the highest importation risk of the virus in Africa. This, because of the volumes of Chinese travelling to these countries.
Back on Derrick Avenue, the Chinatown Johannesburg Community Committee is doing what it can, working closely with the Chinese embassy and the Department of Health.
On Wednesday morning the department provided the committee with a pamphlet that provides information and guidelines in dealing with the virus. The problem is that it is in English - someone will have to be found to translate the pamphlet. Next week there is a planned meeting with the department and the community as part of an education exercise.
But in the meantime the citizens of Chinatown avenue hope for the day when the coronavirus is no longer a looming threat.
One of them is a woman who only gave her name as Lina.
She arrived in South Africa from Harbin city, the famed Ice City in northern China in October.
Like many others, she wears a mask as she walks down the street.
“I know there is no virus,” she says in broken English, “but I want to make sure.”