China virus outbreak threatens global supply chain

More than 100 people have died, 4,635 are infected worldwide and a dozen cities are in lockdown as Chinese authorities grapple with a virus outbreak that is escalating in breadth and seriousness daily.

The coronavirus –- known as such because its edge is shaped like a solar corona -- is going to impact the telecom sector directly through disruption of the supply chain as well as indirectly through the slowing of the global economy.

In an early sign, US and European stocks both tumbled Monday. At this stage, the extent and scale of the outbreak and its impact are simply unknown.

Those with China-centric manufacturing and assembly, like Apple, are going to take a hit. "I can't imagine a scenario where the supply chain isn't disrupted," an analyst told Bloomberg.

A China supply chain expert, Renaud Anjoran, observes that -- with the workforce in the middle of the annual Lunar New Year holiday -- manufacturers don't know when their workers will return and what kind of conditions might be imposed when they resume.

The status of component supplies is also uncertain -- "some factories in your supply chain might not re-open for several weeks … or ever," Anjoran writes.

Chillingly, he adds that it is possible that "all transportation is locked down in China and Hong Kong, and all economic activities are hurt very severely. At this point in time, I don't think anybody can exclude it."

As is usual in disasters anywhere, telcos are playing a central role, providing emergency services to those affected and advanced services to medical staff and other responders. In the most high-profile initiative, the telcos, vendors and China Tower have been key participants in the manic effort to build a new 1,000-bed hospital in ten days.

Reportedly, they erected several 4G and 5G basestations in less than 36 hours. It is not clear why the new hospital is necessary, especially when there are no personnel to staff it, or why it is a better bet than, say, commandeering one of the city's many college dormitories.

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It is an impressive feat, but, from the perspective of the current crisis, it might be more useful if the telcos' advanced networks could help to avoid the need for such panicky measures.

How about working with public health agencies to build a mandatory, open-data national disease reporting network? Or developing apps that track and monitor the spread of disease, helping people to identify symptoms and monitor their own health status?

These are the kind of services operators desperately want to build for commercial as well as social reasons. Unfortunately, the ability of officials to delay or suppress data flows has the effect of discouraging all players from building complex or vital information chains.

But it's not as if this is new, especially in a country given to dining on disease-carrying wild animals. The SARS epidemic of 2003 infected 8,000 people and killed 774.

China's social media networks are displaying a good deal of public anger -– even though many are unaware the disease might not have been reported until weeks after its discovery, or that journalists who initially reported it were detained by police.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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