Stakeholders speak: How Coronavirus is affecting fortune of Chinese restaurants in Lagos

•Coronavirus can’t stop me from eating Chinese rice —Resident

SEGUN KASALI, SUBAIR MOHAMMED and EMMANUEL UDOM measured the mood of Nigeria’s most populous state and likely entry point for the most recent world plague.

In what could pass for a season of one week, one trouble, the global Coronavirus plague is setting one of Africa’s most populous mega cities on the edge again, as it gradually emerged from the okada, Keke Marwa’s ban. With a sizeable population of China nationals in the commercial nerve centre of the country, which mainly operates in the hospitality industry, fabric and electronic/IT sectors, Lagos residents are now being cautious in relating with these visitors, whose influence on the economy of the state has become so prominent that a former governor and now minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, had to enact a law making the study of Chinese language compulsory in public schools in the state. After he left office in 2015, the policy appears to have faded away but the presence of China is continuously noticeable all over the state.

Apart from the popular China Town in Ojota which is a delivery and distribution point for mainly imported fabrics, particularly lace materials, as well as other goods, another area where the foreigners enjoy unmistaken visibility is in the food industry with tens of Chinese restaurants serving exclusive Chinese menu, being very visible all over the Island and Mainland parts of the state.

Considering the uniqueness of the cuisines and their cost, patronizing the food outlets, until now, was becoming some kind of status symbol for the elite, which explains the uproar that attended the alleged racist conduct against Nigerian customers at one of the Chinese restaurants named Shi Shi in March 2019. When the alleged bouncing of the Nigerian customers went viral on the social media, many commentators accused the victims of trying to show off by trying to eat out at Shi Shi instead of seeking out Nigerian cuisines at eateries operated by Nigerians.


No need for plea again

The outbreak of the Coronavirus epidemic, which began in a China suburb and has killed close to 2,000 with over 780 million Chinese being quarantined one way or the other in their country, appears to be all that Lagos residents need to heed the made-in-Nigeria plea. Despite its global spread, including getting to Africa through Egypt, no single case of infection has been reported in Nigeria. Yet, the dwellers of the international gateway are not leaving anything to chance, especially after it was discovered that many Chinese just returned to the country through the international airport and seaport in Lagos from their traditional New Year festival in January, which coincided with the discovery and spread of the killer-disease.

When a three-man team from Saturday Tribune conducted a statewide search, it was discovered that residents may have suddenly developed an allergy for the tasty Chinese cuisines that are usually served hot and chilly at the many exclusive Chinese restaurants all over the state.

At Shu Garden Chinese restaurant, a member of staff disclosed that they had been recording low sales and patronage.

When Saturday Tribune visited the restaurant, both the private seating areas and the parking lot of the three-star rated luncheonette located at the heart of Ikeja, Lagos, were deserted during lunch hours.

The worker said since the first reported case of Coronavirus in December 2019, many of their clients had ceased patronising the restaurant to avoid contact with the Chinese who in multitudes visit the eatery with protective mask.

Many of the restaurant’s Chinese clients, he said, had travelled for the New Year celebration and couldn’t come back to Nigeria because of the epidemic and this also resulted in low patronage and income.

He revealed that the virus did not affect only the Chinese cuisines, as local dishes too are affected with many Nigerian clients not visiting the restaurant again, for fear of inhaling or contracting the virus, through food.


Coronavirus has caused us 30 per cent drop in sales –Restaurant owner

Commenting on the effect of the Coronavirus outbreak on his business, Okanlawon Folarin of Sunrise Chinese Restaurant, Lagos, said the first few weeks of the Coronavirus outbreak saw a 30 per cent drop in his sales.

Folarin said: “We quickly contacted fumigation expert who arrived at the premises of the restaurant with alcohol-based chemicals and fumigated all the doors, tables and chairs. We also asked our Chinese customers to be placing their orders through their drivers. We did this to keep and protect other customers since we are not sure if these Chinese are resident in Lagos or are just visiting Nigeria. In spite of all the steps taken, we recorded low patronage in the first two weeks of the outbreak. We sold N15,000 in the first week of the outbreak. Couriers were temporarily banned from picking up foods and other items from the restaurant to our clients. But sales have gradually picked up as customers come around in trickles with the campaign jingles by the Federal Government and the Lagos State government sensitising residents on the virus.”


We may be sacked –Manager

Also, a manager at a Chinese restaurant located on Isaac John, Ikeja GRA, said although the outbreak of the virus has so far not affected the payment of their salaries, chances are that if the epidemic lingers, workers could be laid off and salaries paid in installment.

A supervisor at a Chinese Restaurant located at Adeola Odeku in Victoria Island, Bassey Okon, disclosed that Chinese restaurants and hotels are at the receiving end of the rampaging virus. He, however, advised Chinese restaurant owners to endure the present pains, set up standards and be vigilant in order not to be caught napping while the virus still ravages.


Chinese no longer patronise us –Hotel managers

In what could be as a result of self-censorship, it was also discovered that Chinese are themselves avoiding hotels.

Manager, Airport Hotel, Ikeja, Adeoti Bisola, told Saturday Tribune that Chinese have stopped patronising the hotel. While disclosing that about two weeks before the outbreak, the entire hotel was fumigated, she lamented low patronage occasioned by fear.

Another manager at Jabita Intercontinental Hotel Limited, Lagos, also lamented poor patronage and panic among lodgers and others.


‘Chinese foods are safe’

A security staff at one of the aforementioned Chinese restaurants on the Mainland told Saturday Tribune that people still patronise Chinese outlets despite the epidemic. Justifying their patronage, he said since the virus is not yet in Nigeria, nothing should stop people from patronising the restaurants.

Another guard, Sola Tobi, a supervisor in one of the Chinese restaurants on Victoria Island, noted that the level of scrutiny at Nigerian and Chinese airports should be sufficient to allay fear of Chinese restaurants being infected with the virus.

“The level of scrutiny at the airports of both countries is very high. I am certain that there won’t be any laxity for the fact that the world is aware. Another fact is the top-notch regulatory framework of restaurants in the country which promotes healthy food and environment. So, the fear of contracting the virus should be disregarded. Chinese restaurants are sound, safe and healthy,” Sola said.


‘Coronavirus can’t stop me from Chinese rice’

It is a case of different strokes for different folks. While the epidemic is making some residents develop aversion for Chinese cuisines, some are pledging their allegiance to them on the basis that the virus has not been detected in Nigeria.

A diehard lover of Chinese food, Kola Ade, explained that he patronises Chinese restaurants because of their consciousness for wellness. Pledging his faithfulness to Chinese cuisines, he said not even the virus could prevent him from eating Chinese rice.

He said: “I patronise Chinese restaurants because of the high premium they place on healthy living which would not give any room for infectious diseases. Apart from the case discovered in Egypt, we have not had any recorded case in Africa, and definitely not in Nigeria. Aside from this, the virus cannot be contracted through food. So, why should I deny myself of Chinese rice?”

Saturday Tribune also noticed that Chinese restaurants like Pearl Garden, Mr Chang, Jade Palace, New China, Oriental Garden and China Town were doing their normal businesses.


‘I fled, left my goods behind’

A dealer in imported Chinese wears on Lagos Island, Maruf Adewunmi, was in Guangzhou, Guangdong province on a business trip when the Coronavirus crisis broke out in Wuhan, China. He told Saturday Tribune that he had to change his flight ticket to rush back to Nigeria, considering the rate at which the virus was spreading amid the report that it kills very fast.

According to him, many Nigerians are stranded in Guangzhou as a result of the cancellation of flights to China by some airline operators.

Adewunmi said: “I was in Guangzhou when the news broke out that Coronavirus had killed many people in Wuhan. We heard that it spreads and kills even faster than the Ebola virus. If the Chinese with all their technology and the health facilities at their disposal are finding it difficult to contain the spread of the virus, I said to myself, it would be a disaster if it spreads to Africa. I decided to leave my goods behind, had my flight ticket changed to return to Nigeria to avoid the rowdy Chinese market when they resume from the January 26 New Year break.

«I was able to leave the province because I could afford to pay $600 to get my ticket changed. But there are many Nigerians who are stranded in Guangzhou. Some of them couldn’t afford the high cost of changing their tickets, while others were affected because of the cancellation of their flights. It is dangerous for them to be delayed in China because of the virus. The Federal Government should look into this and bring them back home.

«The number of casualties is increasing among the Chinese and Europeans. Africans are not immune to it; we could be affected, too. So, to avoid a national health emergency, the Federal Government should intervene and bring back to Nigeria those that are stranded in China.

«If an airline could cancel all its flights to China because of the virus, why can’t the Nigerian government intervene to get its citizens out of there? The Asian country is a no-go-area at this time. It is dangerous to go in and those Nigerians that are there should be assisted to get out. They also need to be screened at the airport to ensure that they have a clean bill of health.”


The problem lies with returnees –LCCI DG

The Director-General, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Muda Yusuf, in a telephone interview with Saturday Tribune x-rayed the implications of Coronavirus disease for the hospitality industry in Nigeria. He said the epidemic has had profound impact on the global economy.

Yusuf stated that the Chinese economy is the largest in the world and whenever it has an issue, the effect is felt by the global economy because of China’s consumption of energy and the critical role of its economy in the global supply chain.

He said: “The virus is already creating an issue with the global economy. And when the global economy begins to slow down, it will affect the oil price and when the oil price begins to weaken, it will affect us because we are heavily dependent on oil. We have some of Nigerian companies that source raw materials and input from China and quite a number of factories in China have been shut down because of their inability to produce as a result of the virus. Also, there are companies in Nigeria that depend on raw materials from China and because those factories are not functioning, it will definitely affect their raw materials. There are lots of companies that are so affected. It has an impact globally, not just in Nigeria, because of the size of the Chinese economy.

«Back to the hospitality industry, I would say it has a mild effect on the hospitality industry. The virus has to do more with the Chinese citizens that are just coming into the country. That is where the risk of Coronavirus is.

«But with the citizens that are already here, the risk is not that much. It has more to do with Chinese people coming back to Nigeria and that is why the Federal Government is stepping up efforts to ensure that anybody coming back from China is quarantined for a specific period.

«There is a lot of vigilance at the airport to ensure that anybody coming from China is tested for the virus and possibly quarantined for a period of time. Specifically for the hospitality industry, I don’t see any major problem. Although there may be some psychological issue that could affect some of the workers in the hospitality industry, the real risk has to do with people coming in from China and not those that are already in Nigeria.”


Uber drivers’ concern

Apart from food consumption, public transportation is another area of concern as the virus continues to spread and a prominent sector in the state isn’t also leaving anything to chance.

An Uber Driver, Uthman Adepoju, said he would not mind picking up a Chinese for a trip as long as the passenger would take the back seat. Adepoju noted that he would make sure that there would be no contact with such a passenger, adding that he would ask that the fare be dropped on the seat.

He said the spread of the virus, especially its recent spread to Egypt, was responsible for his fear towards Chinese.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t mind picking up a Chinese for a ride but I would make sure that he sits at the back. I would make efforts to be sure that he doesn’t come in contact with me and in fact, force him to drop his money on the seat when he is about disembarking. Look at the spread of the epidemic and tell me why I won’t panic. The disease has spread to Egypt, making the country the first African nation to experience it,” he said.

Adepoju, however, said that Nigeria is still a safe place despite the news doing the rounds about the epidemic.

Also speaking, Tunde Ayeni, a regular customer to most of the Chinese on the Island, said the spread of the virus had changed his perception towards rendering his service to them. He explained that anything could happen, considering Nigeria’s porous border, while noting that a Coronavirus-infected Chinese could sneak into the country without the authorities knowing.

Tunde added that the current situation creates fear in him and he would not want to have anything doing with the Chinese, let alone buy things from them or sit side by side with them.

Another Uber driver, Tochuckwu Eze, said there is no point considering whether to do business with the Chinese or not due to the commendable global efforts to curb the spread of the virus. Eze was also confident that the strategies put in place by the Federal Government would not allow it in Nigeria. He said there was nothing he wouldn’t be able to do with the Chinese, even those just landing in Lagos, because he was sure that they would have been cleared of the disease. He, therefore, urged Nigerians to desist from spreading rumours about the disease.

“For me, I would not anticipate any negative thing concerning the Chinese because the efforts being made by world powers and the Nigerian government specifically are commendable.

“The strategies put in place by the Federal Government are enough to get the conviction that such epidemic would not enter into this country.  Therefore, I can do anything with the Chinese nationals, including those who recently got back from China,” Eze said.


No discrimination, please –Govt

The state government has, however, appealed to the residents to shun any forms of discrimination and ethnic profiling. The Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr Gbenga Omotoso, in an interview with Saturday Tribune, said: “No, I don’t think so (Coronavirus affecting locals’ interaction with the Chinese community in the state). The Chinese embassy has come out openly to say that the people who are here don’t have anything to fear that they may have the disease, because everything is being done to ensure that it doesn’t enter Nigeria.

“Nigeria itself is trying everything. The government of Lagos State is working with the Federal Government to ensure that Coronavirus does not make any appearance here. We are supporting the Federal Government to man the airports. We already have a command center for it. The centre is headed by the governor himself and comprises all members of the executive council.

“I don’t think there is any need for any fear. If anybody is discriminating against anybody or any particular set of people because of Coronavirus, I think it is very wrong. I have not seen that. I haven’t got that kind of complaint.

“I saw some Chinese people today. Nobody complained about such a thing. But if anybody is doing such a thing, it is very wrong. They don’t have anything to fear, Lagos is well prepared for it.

“Like I told you, we have set up a structure headed by the governor himself for this kind of thing and the commissioner for health is part of it. Members of the executive council are also part of this structure that we have set up.

“And we are preparing for it and right at the airport. You know we don’t own the airport but despite that, we have partnered with the Federal Government to ensure that people are properly screened.

“Already, we have isolation centres. We have structures on ground. We are praying that it should not come here. We have all structures on ground. Also, there is no reason for anybody to discriminate against anybody.”

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