General Motors and Ford Motor Co. are among a growing number of global corporations operating in China that are limiting travel or forgoing long-held traditions around Lunar New Year to protect their employees against a spreading deadly virus outbreak.
The U.S. automakers, along with HSBC and other companies, are restricting non-essential travel to Wuhan, the epicenter of the contagion that so far has killed nine people and seen cases spread across the region and even to the U.S. China has started a nationwide screening to tackle the outbreak of the new respiratory virus, with hundreds of millions set to travel during the looming Lunar New Year holiday.
The World Health Organization will decide whether to declare the new coronavirus an international public health emergency, a designation used for complex epidemics that can cross borders. All of the nine deaths have been from Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. They include eight men, aged 61 to 87, and a 48-year-old woman -- with almost all of them having pre-existing illnesses.
”We have issued a global travel advisory for Wuhan,” Detroit-based GM, which has employees from its joint partners in the area, said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “If someone needs to go there, travel has to be business critical and they must get managerial approval .”
Ford, which does not operate in Wuhan, advised its employees not to travel to the city, saying via email that it is “watching the issue and will adapt, as necessary.” Ford’s Chinese operations are located in Chongqing and Nanjing, which are about 900 kilometers (550 miles) and 650 kilometers, respectively, from Wuhan.
Social media giant Tencent Holdings was among Chinese corporations that responded swiftly to reduce individual contact. It called off a longstanding annual tradition where top executives hand out Lunar New Year red envelopes in person to employees. The WeChat operator is suspending travel to Wuhan, along with brokerage Citic Securities, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named as they are not authorized to speak publicly.
The Beijing office of China Life Insurance, the country’s second-biggest insurer by market value, also suspended business travel to Wuhan and asked employees to avoid an area within 62 miles (100 km) of the city, according to a memo seen by Bloomberg News. Those who have been to Wuhan or nearby should work remotely for at least seven days before returning to office.
Representatives for Citic, China Life and Tencent did not respond to requests for comment.
Hon Hai Precision Industry, also known as Foxconn, is mulling contingency plans to deal with the outbreak, founder Terry Gou said. The company, best known for assembling iPhone components, asked Wuhan-based staff and their families to stay away from a corporate gathering on Wednesday. Gou warned that China lacks enough drugs and medical equipment to handle a coronavirus pandemic.
“2020 is full of challenges,” Gou said Tuesday at an annual party in Taipei. “The outbreak of coronavirus is one of them.”
Confirmed cases have stretched to six locations outside mainland China, including the first diagnosis in the U.S. -- a resident of Washington state who had recently returned from China.
The rumor mill is starting to churn in Hong Kong, where large parts of the population are now wearing face masks and hand sanitizers are readily available at offices, apartment buildings and hotels. The outbreak of the SARS virus in 2003 is still fresh in people’s memories.
HSBC on Tuesday responded to social media speculation that one of its employees had contracted the virus.
“We’ve been informed that an employee has been diagnosed with Type A influenza,” a spokeswoman said. “The wellness of our employees is always a top priority for us. We have, therefore, conducted thorough cleaning and disinfection of the concerned location, HSBC Centre Level 15.”
Travel by bank employees to Wuhan would be only on a needs basis, an HSBC spokeswoman said.
Goldman Sachs Group has also recommended delaying non-essential business travel to Wuhan, according the people familiar who asked not to be identified discussing an internal matter.
A number of companies, including Volkswagen Group, have issued employees advice on how to avoid contagion, including urging them to wash their hands. A VW spokesman said production at its joint ventures in China is unaffected.
FedEx is supplying surgical masks and alcohol wipes to its employees -- which it calls team members -- and disinfecting facilities in areas where outbreaks have happened. “We are also encouraging our team members to take any signs of illness seriously and seek medical attention as needed,” the delivery giant said via email.
The disease is so far considered less deadly than SARS, which killed 800 people and stunted economic growth across the region.