Tech companies respond to Wuhan virus with refunds and price freezes
Alibaba, Meituan and Tencent are among several Chinese tech companies scrambling to respond to the Wuhan virus outbreak and keep customers happy
Amid a coronavirus outbreak that has killed 17 people and infected hundreds more throughout China, the country’s tech platforms has announced a slew of measures reacting to the spread of the virus.
The death toll in China almost doubled in one day as of midnight Wednesday, according to official data.
Wuhan officials announced a complete travel ban for the city’s residents early on Thursday morning, with urban buses, subways, ferries and long-distance passenger transport suspended in the city, one of the four major railway hubs in China. Flights and trains departing Wuhan are also temporarily suspended, with no details yet on when they would resume. The news prompted many in the city to rush to escape before the ban set in at 10am.
News of the outbreak broke just days before hundreds of millions of Chinese travelers head home for annual family reunions during the Lunar New Year holiday, marking the “world’s largest human migration.”
In response to the spread of the virus and resulting panic, the country’s tech firms have announced measures ranging from offering free cancellations and refunds for bookings to vowing to keep the prices of face masks online stable.
Ecommerce sites freeze prices for masks, disinfectant and offer subsidies
Chinese e-tailers including Taobao, Suning and JD.com made pledges late on Tuesday to prevent price spikes for medical items such as face masks and disinfectant and offer non-stop delivery services during Lunar New Year, as rumors spread that supplies of in-demand items such as surgical masks were running low at most drug stores in some of the country’s biggest cities.
Alibaba – which owns the South China Morning Post – said it would subsidize mask-related items and ensure consumers receive authentic products “at reasonable prices,” and Alibaba Health will offer non-stop delivery services during the Lunar New Year holiday, according to a Weibo post.
The ecommerce giant said that as of Wednesday, there were 46 million masks in its inventory and that it expected its manufacturers to be able to produce more than 1 million more before Lunar New Year, which starts on January 25 this year. Daily production capacity will pick up to 16 million after the Spring Festival, it added.
Suning announced similar price freezes and extended delivery services in a statement, adding that health products including masks, disinfectant, hand wash, air purifiers and UV sterilising lamps were in “sufficient supply” via its ecommerce app and physical stores.
Despite the online retailers’ assurances, a Wuhan native surnamed Feng, living in Hong Kong, said she still worried about her family in her hometown. “Many online stores only offer shipment after the holiday, or we need to queue for shipment,” she said. “The masks in the pharmacy near my home [in Wuhan] are sold out.”
Food delivery platforms form virus control teams
With food delivery riders coming in close contact with restaurant staff and consumers, Chinese food delivery platforms Meituan and Ele.me have both announced that they had set up dedicated virus control teams to control the spread of the disease.
In similar statements, the two companies said they had equipped all deliverymen in Wuhan and other areas affected by the epidemic with masks and would monitor their body temperatures closely.
Meituan said it had suspended delivery to some hospitals in Wuhan to ensure the safety of deliverymen and consumers, while Ele.me suspended the delivery to the hospitals in both Wuhan and other areas affected by the outbreak.
Free refunds for movie tickets
Online movie ticket platforms have also jumped in to offer free ticket cancellations for movies during the Spring Festival, citing the safety of cinema-goers and the need to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
China’s largest movie ticketing app Maoyan Entertainment, is offering unconditional refunds for screenings in Wuhan from January 22 to February 8, as well as allowing users to submit requests for refunds for areas outside the city.
Similarly, Alibaba-owned Taopiaopiao, has announced unconditional refunds for tickets for Wuhan cinemas from January 22 to January 31, and will consider refund requests for screenings in other locations.
While movie tickets for screenings next week were still available on the platforms on Thursday, seven new releases scheduled over the Chinese New Year period have been postponed, according to their official Weibo accounts.
Transport platforms offer free cancellations of Wuhan bookings
Ride-hailing firm Hello Transtech, formerly known as Hellobike, announced on Tuesday that both drivers and passengers will be able to cancel rides going to or leaving Wuhan without charge, with the company processing refunds unconditionally.
AutoNavi, most well-known for its map service across China, similarly announced that it would be free to cancel ride services in the city this week.
Tencent boss cancels traditional red packet handout
To the frustration of some Tencent employees, founder Pony Ma Huateng has also decided not hand out red packets to employees for the Lunar New Year for the first time in nearly two decades.