From a deserted 42nd Street in midtown New York, above, to the ski fields of France and lawyers' offices in South Korea, the lockdown is affecting many. Photo: AFP/Timothy A Clary

Man is living through an unprecedented crisis. Never before in living memory has the world been so shaken by a pandemic. Never before have so many economies been shut down.

Amid this, the businesses most at risk are small, cash-flow dependent firms. Three self-employed members of the global middle classes, all with Asia connections, told Asia Times of their current situations and confided their fears for the future.

A Korean-American real estate agent in New York talked of surviving Covid-19 and the professional uncertainties hanging over millions of Americans. A US lawyer in South Korea told of how his multinational clients are making unprecedented – and illegal – cuts to their workforces. And an Anglo-Indian tourism operator in France wondered whether the EU’s entire winter sports sector could be devastated.

‘It’s not like getting hit by a truck … it’s like a 747’

New York independent real estate agent June Chang (right) with friends in happier times. Having survived a savage bout with Covid-19, she now faces an uncertain economic future. Photo: Courtesy June Chang

June Chang, 41, is a New York-based, self-employed real estate agent who – having previously had open-heart surgery – was vulnerable to the novel coronavirus despite her age. She has survived Covid-19, but it was touch and go.

“I tried to limit my exposure but I am in real estate and have to travel to properties, am constantly meeting people and am always on the move and sometimes I have to take the subway,” she said. “And that was the biggest way this was being transmitted.”

One month after recovering, she still has no idea where, when or from whom she contracted Covid-19 as New York’s contact tracing has lagged. But her symptoms were sudden and savage.

“It’s not like getting hit by a truck, it’s like getting hit by a 747,” she said. “I was getting sweats and chills, I could barely breathe.” When her temperature hit 102, Chang’s father – a medical doctor – drove her to an emergency room.

Due to a shortage of Covid-19 kits, she was denied a test, which were reserved for healthcare workers. Only after scans and X-rays found Chang had pneumonia and a partly collapsed lung was she tested for Covid-19, and the test came back positive.

With hospital beds awaiting those with the severest symptoms, Chang was given a course of antibiotics and ordered to self-isolate in her bedroom. “I was bed-ridden, dripping in sweat, unable to walk, unable to work.” When she breathed, her lung sounded “like a paper bag being crumpled.”

Worse followed. She proved allergic to the antibiotics, suffering hives, swelling and worsened breathing. The vaunted drug chloroquine failed to help – she suffered stomach issues.

For one month, her father monitored her condition.

“The meds did not do anything so I just had to ride it out, and I still have a slight cough,” she said. “It’s hard to get everything out of the system.” In the aftermath, she suffered brain fog, memory loss and confusion. 

She is angry at the dubious information circulating America-wide

“First the Center for Disease Control said ‘Don’t wear masks,’ now they say, ‘Wear masks,’” Chang, who formerly lived in South Korea and saw how Koreans with colds routinely masked up in order not to infect others, said. “And a lot of Americans are too cool or proud to wear masks.”

Post-recovery, she has other worries. The first is racism linked to the disease’s apparent Chinese origin. Chang has not suffered it, but a Taiwanese friend has.

The latter was working in an Ivy League club in New York when “… a gentleman came up to her and pretended to have a dry coughing fit, then told her ‘Go back to your own country!’” Chang said. “It boggles the mind – these are highly educated people.” She has also heard of masked Asians being harassed on public transport.

The second is her professional future.

“The real estate market has shifted dramatically and this is not a conducive environment for buying or selling,” she said. Post-lockdown, the market “will look dramatically different.” Moreover, there is fuzziness over new crisis regulations concerning landlord and tenant rights.

“Most people in the US are worried. A lot have [income] insecurity,” she said. “I am one of them. Right now, everyone is scared.”

What she most fears is a second wave after New York eventually exits lockdown.

“Many people want to get their businesses up and running,” Chang said. “I fear the US is not prepared or educated enough to understand the impact this has … if there is a resurgence it will be a disaster, on both the health and the economic side – a double whammy.”

‘The workforce cut everyone is aiming for is 20%’

South Korea-based American lawyer Brendon Carr is swamped with business – as client companies take a chainsaw to their payrolls. Photo: Brendon Carr

Brendon Carr, 50, a Seoul-based American, is a founding partner of law firm Hwang, Hong and Co, PC. On the lifestyle front, he has no complaints: South Korea handily contained the virus without enacting lockdowns. “I have not made adjustments in my life,” he said. “I go to work, I go home … I meet fewer people, but life goes on as normal.”

And business is booming.

His 11-member firm specializes in employment law and clients are piling up. Clients are multinationals introduced through firms in Singapore, Hong Kong, London and San Fransisco. With lawyers from those firms unable to travel, all the work is channeled to Carr and colleagues.

What worries Carr is the work he is being asked to do.

“For about the last six weeks, the only new work that we have been doing has been related to how employers can reduce their workforces … [via] unpaid leave, pay reductions or furloughs,” he said. “Three new clients showed up Friday asking the same question: ‘How do I unilaterally put employees on unpaid-leave status?’”

This is problematic as such moves are illegal in South Korea. One client, a major hotel brand, is laying off a senior Korean executive and may close its property. Another, a brand-name financial company, is planning a unilateral wage cut. Both actions could trigger criminal suits.

“The urgency of the measures is breathtaking,” Carr said. “The fear [multinationals] must be facing is really something.” There is a grim overall commonality. “The cut everyone seems to be aiming for is to reduce payrolls by 20%.”

Cearly, jobs in South Korea – a globalized, trade dependent economy – face a reckoning. “Unemployment in Korea is going to be remarkably high,” he said. “This is driven by global conditions – locally the economy is not in terrible shape.”

Carr is deeply aware of how his business is being driven by some very negative forces. “It is good for me and my colleagues personally, we have work,” he said. “But for the families of the people we are making jobless, it’s going to be wrenching.”

More work is imminent. “There will be suing, and criminal complaints with the government,” he said. “That will keep us busy for two-three years – but then what?”

Looking back, a fearsome precedent is apparent. “How long did the Great Depression last?” he asked rhetorically. “It was the decade before World War II, then the years of the war.”

Amid such grim thoughts, his broader concern is social instability.

“Lawyers do not do well in a knife fight,” he mused. “When society breaks down and there is no food, they eat lawyers.”

‘We lost a third of our annual income’

Toorn Mitra opened a dream business in the French Alps. Now she finds herself a player in one of the world’s most at-risk sectors: Family-owned tourism businesses. Photo: Toorna Mitra/Alpine 365

Toorna Mitra*, 47, a second-generation Anglo-Indian based in France, normally has pristine views of Mont Blanc. Now, she faces a cloudy tomorrow.

Twelve years ago, she and her British husband ditched marketing jobs in London to live the dream: Run a ski-chalet rental business in the French Alps. But suddenly she has found herself a player in Europe’s most at-risk sector, the tourism industry.

Mitra’s business, Alpine365, operates five chalets and employs 11 staff. The pandemic hit at a killer moment – mid-way through the winter sports season. “On March 14, [French President Emanuel] Macron announced that we were going into lockdown on 17 March,” she said “All ski resorts shut. Basically, we had to lock everything down.”

Guests had to pack up and depart – a disaster for the winter sports economy. “Our season is only 18 weeks, from December to April,” Mitra said. “Essentially, we lost a third of our annual income.”

Life is now radically different. Mitra conducts homeschooling for their two elementary school-aged children. Lockdown conditions are serious. Anyone who ventures out to exercise (daily) or shop (weekly) must fill in an online form to present to roving police officers enforcing lockdown.

Meanwhile, her husband staunches the wounds of their business. They have kept staff on until their contracts end in April, but cannot afford to refund all guests who have canceled, suggesting, if possible, that they contact their travel insurers. It is heartbreaking: many are customers who return year after year.

No new money is rolling in. “Right now, we would expect to be really busy, booking holidays for the next ski season and getting lots of deposits – that is our cash flow,” she said. “But we have hardly any bookings.”

However, there is some government assistance. French staff are paid by Paris, and no rents are required to be paid during the crisis. Arrears, though, will, eventually, have to be paid. This means Mitra’s business has minimal expenses and she believes they can subsist – frugally – on savings for a year.

Unlike counterparts in the tourism sector on the Cote d’Azure, Mitra does not rely on summer tourism, granting her a wider time window.

“There is a lot of time for things to get better, but if the situation continues through to the ski season, it will decimate the entire valley,” she said. “The only people left would be farmers.”

*Disclosure: Mitra is the writer’s sister-in-law.

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