The coronavirus outbreak has upended office life in Asia, revealing a massive gap in who can count on having a job

beijing china bun shop coronavirus

  • The coronavirus, a disease outbreak which has spread to 26 countries since late December, upended work in East and Southeast Asia.
  • In conversations on how coronavirus impacted work in East and Southeast Asia, white-collar workers expressed greater feelings of job security than low-earning workers, and some small business owners reported losing jobs or pay as a result of the outbreak.
  • The pressure to come to work for fear of losing pay can cause a public health hazard, according to experts.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Korn Opas, the owner of a massage studio in Bangkok, saw a significant drop in visitors after the coronavirus outbreak in China - a big impact for a business that relies, like Thailand does in general, on Chinese tourists for much of its GDP.

Besides losing clients from decreased travel from China, Opas told Business Insider she lost even more money paying for hand sanitizer and disposable masks. After the outbreak, mask prices shot up by 50% to 100% online, she said, before the government controlled prices. Even products to make home-made hand sanitizer have increased, Opas said.

"The impact to normal business will depend on how soon the virus outbreak is controlled worldwide as the Thailand economy depends largely on tourism," she added.

In Japan, a Tokyo-based programmer for a major company told Business Insider his pay has not been impacted at all after coronavirus. The software developer's company encouraged workers to work from home, but he said his team finds it better to take shifts coming into the office to lessen the disease's spread.

Across Asia, white-collar professionals like the programmer in Tokyo have seen less impacts to their pay from the coronavirus outbreak than blue-collar workers such as Opas. As coronavirus enters its third month and deaths surge past 1,300 as of February 13, low-wage and small business workers across East and Southeast Asia have worried about paying their bills and keeping their jobs. Professionals employed by larger companies have, for the most part, more job security and flexibility to work from home.

Business Insider spoke with five workers in East and Southeast Asia who had been impacted by coronavirus. Most requested anonymity due to fear they would lose their jobs or clients. We confirmed their identities prior to publishing.

Tech workers in Asia haven't had too many issues from coronavirus, while small business owners and low-wage workers have lost pay, jobs.

The coronavirus first spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December. Since the initial outbreak, more than 1,000 people have died in China, and deaths have also been reported in the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Japan as of February 13, with as many as 60,000 infections reported as far afield as the US and parts of the EU.

The sudden outbreak upended work around East and Southeast Asia. Many businesses closed following the Chinese New Year holiday in late January, and companies mandated work-from-home schedules. China's efforts to protect workers from getting sick have included a 10-day extension of the Lunar New Year holiday that kept shops and businesses closed for longer.

Coronavirus spurred an unprecedented "work from home" experiment for many white-collar employees in finance, tech, and law, Bloomberg reported. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that working from home inhibits viruses from spreading.

Office buildings also installed temperature readers for everyone entering. Kseniya Otmakhova, a PR director in Beijing, shared photos of an extensive temperature screening process outside her office on LinkedIn. She said while some may find the protocol "extreme," she appreciates the proactive approach to preventing an outbreak.

But for small business and low-wage workers, not going to work meant losing pay.

Opas, for instance, operated her business as usual without taking any time off, and she told her staff to wear gloves and masks, and to wash their hands between massage sessions. Sarah Lev, a freelance tour guide in Singapore, said travel agencies only hired her on five days for all of January, and she has yet to get booked in February.

Vulnerable small businesses have already begun laying off hundreds of employees in China, according to the South China Morning Post. Some business owners stranded outside of Hong Kong due to the travel ban instituted by the Philippines told Business Insider that they fear losing weeks of revenue and even missing their rent payments because of the loss of clients and some employees' inability to work.

A domestic worker in Hong Kong, who asked to stay anonymous, said she had already lost her job cleaning for a family. The worker said she has been unable to get to Hong Kong due to the Philippines' travel restriction, so hasn't been paid for more than two weeks.

"The experience of losing a job and not having a job to go back to affected me very much because it seems like I have to start from square one again," the worker said. "I can't say my position is different from other professionals because we're all working for money to support our families."

How the pressure for business owners to come to work contributes to the public health crisis.

Where government protections on sick leave are lacking, a phenomenon called "presenteeism" occurs, where vulnerable workers feel pressured to go into work to make money, even while sick.

Marissa Baker, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences department, told Business Insider that coming into work with any illness poses a public health risk for other people in the community.

"I can't say coronavirus is being spread faster because of of presenteeism, but it is a consideration," Baker said. "Presenteeism has been shown to cause other workplace epidemics."

The picture emerging on the ground of the coronavirus outbreak in East and Southeast Asia is of white-collar businesses taking steps to help their employees and reduce changes of a further outbreak. Small businesses and low-wage workers, with fewer resources, have to try to power through somehow.

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