Expats are being hard-hit by the coronavirus but the full impact is yet to come

Feb 26, 2020 | 13 comments

Australian, British and U.S. expatriates in China say almost every aspect of their lives now revolves around the coronavirus outbreak. The story is much the same in South Korea, Japan and other east Asian countries and concern is growing in expat communities in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

A teacher stands in an empty classroom in Wuhan, China.

“It is too early to speculate on what the impact the virus will have on expats but the news is getting worse by the day,” says Roger Ammons, a consultant for businesses that place foreign workers in jobs in China and Japan. “The spread of the disease to Italy and Spain this week is very frightening and I shudder to think what happens if we see a full-fledged pandemic.”

Ammons says he is receiving daily reports from British and U.S. expats who are under “lock-down” in China and South Korea. “They tell me that the businesses where they work are closed and they have no idea how long their movement will be restricted,” he says. “Some of them are worried that their income will end and they will be stranded.”

Australian John Miller, who lives and works in Wuhan, the Chinese epicenter of the coronavirus, told a Sydney newspaper Sunday that he hasn’t worked for a month and that he is restricted to a three-block area near his apartment building. “The stores and restaurants are closed and when I went out last week to buy groceries a loud speaker on a drone told me to go home immediately. Life here is like something out of science fiction.”

English teacher Alison Farmer, a U.S. expat, tells a similar story from a town outside of Wuhan. “It’s crazy here and they are telling us nothing,” she says. “My best friend went to the hospital and I don’t know whether she’s even alive. So many people around here have died. They tell me to stay indoors but I’m running out of food.”

Ammons says that he was “scared to death” by the prediction of a Harvard University epidemiologist Monday that the coronavirus will eventually infect 50% to 70% of the world’s population. “Of course, this affects everyone but I worry particularly about the expats who won’t be able to return home.”

On Monday and Tuesday, officials of World Health Organization and the U.S. Center for Disease Contol said it wasn’t a matter of if the coronavirus will become a pandemic, but when.

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