Hong Kong CNN  — 

Everyone knows the feeling. It’s day six of a two-week course of antibiotics, and you’re feeling much better. You’re ready for a return to normality, to being able to drink alcohol and eat what you want without worry, to not stressing about taking your pills at the right time.

Of course, as most people (hopefully) know, stopping antibiotics at this point is the worst possible move, risking a return of the infection or enabling the bug to develop resistance to medicine, potentially putting more people at risk down the line. And yet many people still do it, because it’s hard, when things feel like they’re going back to normal, to continue to follow medical precautions, particularly ones that effect our day-to-day lives.

A similar dynamic is developing with the novel coronavirus. Even as new outbreaks are reported around the world and we edge towards pandemic levels, the situation is stabilizing in some areas where infections were first detected and people are starting to return to normality.

In China particularly, there has been a major drop in the number of new cases reported in the past week, particularly outside of Hubei, the province where the outbreak began. This has led some areas to lower travel restrictions and begin the slow process of getting back to work.

Liaoning, a province in northeastern China that borders North Korea, was the first to downgrade the coronavirus emergency response level from the highest level – Level 1 – to Level 3 on Saturday, according to a statement by the provincial government. This was followed by Shanxi, Guangdong, Yunnan, Gansu and Guizhou, accounting for some 305 million people.

In Hong Kong too, where actions taken by the semi-autonomous Chinese city appear to have avoided an outbreak on the scale of the 2003 SARS crisis, there is a sense of very gradual relaxation. Although two people have died from the virus and the number of confirmed cases continues to rise – it is now more than 90 – an increasing number of the city’s residents are beginning to slowly venture back out and about again. Some are even dispensing with face masks, previously a rare sight.

The relative success of Hong Kong in preventing the type of fast expanding mass outbreaks seen first in mainland China and now South Korea and other countries is likely due to the effectiveness of precautions, including closing schools and having large numbers of residents work at home to increase social distancing.

But as time goes on, and as cabin fever grows, it’s only natural for people to feel like it’s maybe time to go back to the office – despite the potential risk. On Wednesday, the Hong Kong government announced a major economic relief package, boosting, perhaps unintentionally, the sense that the worst may have passed.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 30: People shop along Broadway in lower Manhattan on May 30, 2019 in New York City. New numbers released by the Commerce Department on Thursday show that the U.S. economy grew by 3.1% to start the year, slightly better than expected. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Coronavirus angst could turn into an economic crisis
03:04 - Source: CNN Business

Mixed messages

While a desire to return to normal after weeks of paranoia and quarantine is understandable, the danger may be far from over, particularly in mainland China.

Since the outbreak began in December last year, more than 78,000 cases have been confirmed inside of Mainland China, with the death toll rising to more than 2,700.

Serious questions remain over the accuracy of the country’s data on the virus, however, with multiple shifts in how cases are reported or categorized. Outside of Hubei itself, where a huge amount of resources and emergency staff have been deployed, there are fears that cases may be missed or go undiagnosed.

Even if the data is accurate, and the number of cases is stabilizing, it may be weeks before it is safe for people to be moving around freely again or gathering in large numbers. We know that the virus can lie dormant and there is strong evidence that it is spread while people are asymptomatic.

This was presumably the thinking behind postponing the annual meeting of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, which was due to open on March 5 in Beijing.

But the messaging from the Chinese authorities has been mixed at best and often somewhat contradictory.

State media has been playing up stories of perseverance and self-sacrifice, while the country’s censors have been going after any criticism of the government and clamping down on VPNs used to bypass the Great Firewall. At the same time, many foreign media websites have been blocked, and Chinese authorities have criticized some coverage by the international press.

Taking matters a step further, the central propaganda authorities announced they will soon publish a book – in six different languages – on China’s efforts to combat the virus, with a focus on President Xi Jinping’s “outstanding leadership, strategic vision, sense of mission and care for the people.”

And yet, amid these “mission accomplished” vibes, Xi himself warned Wednesday that “the situation in Hubei Province and its capital city of Wuhan remains complex and grim, and the risk of a rebound of the epidemic in other regions can not be overlooked.”

Economic pain

Economically, the coronavirus has already had a major toll, affecting everything from property sales to box office receipts, and leaving many businesses shuttered for weeks as employees remain under quarantine.

Writing Wednesday, Mark Williams, an analyst at Capital Economics, said that the Chinese economy “will contract outright in year-on-year terms this quarter, for the first time since at least the 1990s.” While a stimulus package is in the works, it will likely not prevent a slowdown in annual growth.

Hong Kong is also feeling the pinch. The city was already in a technical recession following months of protests last year and the virus outbreak and accompanying slowdown has only made the situation worse. While some analysts said the cash payout announced by the government this week could help stimulate the economy, officials have warned it could take up to three months for people to actually receive the money.

If the initial outbreak has been devastating for the Chinese economy, a second could be even worse, further undermining confidence and adding more strain to businesses already teetering. It could also potentially lead to widespread discontent with the government, particularly as it has been pushing the narrative that it is on top of things.

China’s leaders have taken dramatic steps to rein in the virus, quarantining millions of people and putting much of the country on lockdown. Were these to have turned out to be for nothing, the public anger could be massive.

At the same time, there’s only so long you can expect people to put up with what are often extremely limiting restrictions, particularly when the immediate danger appears to have passed.

China’s leaders undoubtedly understand these risks, and will be weighing them against the costs of keeping so much of the country out of work for so long. Hopefully a gradual return to normality will be just that, rather than a window for the outbreak to rebound.