Running an Export Business During an Epidemic

Article by Martin Zhao

I had never been so excited to get back to work as I was after the Chinese Spring Festival Holiday this year. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a workaholic, as I know all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and my name’s not Jack. Instead, I am Martin who always try to balance life and work.

I have been engaged in international trade for several years and, as a routine before every holiday, I would write to my customers abroad by email to let them know what may happen in the days to come.

So on January 20, 2020, my last working day before the holiday, I emailed my customer:

Hello Steve,
Please be informed that our office will be closed due to the upcoming Chinese Spring Festival Holiday. I will do my best to reply your emails. For anything urgent please call me.

Thank you and Best regards!


As a guy born and raised in Xi’an most of my Spring Festivals are spent in the city or somewhere around the city. This year I want to try to do it differently and decide to have a family trip abroad, so I booked the flights and hotels online pretty earlier and was eagerly anticipating my trip.

One evening, the Chinese president issued a televised warning that an unknown virus was spreading in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, which is next to Shaanxi province. At that time, nothing seemed unusual in Xi’an. People were bustling around in the streets, some were shopping, some were rushing to catch the public transportation to head home, and some non-Xianese people were traveling around trying local foods and taking photos. Everything seemed normal.

Three days later on January 23, the day before the Lunar New Year Eve, a lockdown was suddenly announced in Wuhan and soon across the whole of Hubei province. A lockdown for all of Wuhan city, with over 10 million people inside, and then Hubei province, with over 60 million? This seemed both horrible and unprecedented!

That’s we I began to understand the seriousness of the situation. After a few day, Xi’an was quarantined as well. All the restaurants and entertainment facilities were shut down. Almost overnight, all the people in Xi’an had their faced covered with masks. I am, frankly, not a fan for mask but this time was different. So, I tried to buy some masks both online and offline, but failed to find any. Luckily, my friends sent me some, for which I am so grateful. Worst of all, all my flights and hotels that I had booked were sadly cancelled. I then wrote to the customer:

Hello Steve,

I have been dreaming of having a different Spring Festival Holiday for years and it looks it may come true this year, though in an unexpected way. There is an unknown virus which is spreading rapidly in China.

The epicenter of the outbreak is Wuhan city, some 800km away from Xi’an. I hope this will not affect our business.
Kind regards, Martin.

This was the response:

Noted, Martin, and thank you for the information. I hope your family and you are well.

Kind regards, Steve.

While I was ready to get back to work by the end of the holiday, a notice from the government stating that the holiday would be extended with 10 days more was issued, which would normally be a bonus, but was less than good news, considering the circumstances. All businesses, except for those manufacturing goods for epidemic prevention, would not be allowed to open until further notice.

So, I wrote to my customer once more:

Hello Steve,

I am sorry to let you know that, for the first time in my life, the Lunar New Year Holiday has been extended due to the epidemic. We are confident the epidemic will be contained eventually with the efforts made by the Chinese government and its people. We will have your order processed within 10 days once our office is allowed to open. Thank you for your understanding in advance.

Kind regards,
In no time I received a reply:
Hello Martin,
Thank you for the update. Be safe!
Kind regards,

During the extended 10 days, I did not feel like a holiday anymore, instead I began to concern the epidemic trend every day and its impact on the business in China and worldwide. It is well known that China has become the factory of the world but never truly understand its meaning until this moment. Approaching the end of the extended holiday, I became a bit of anxious waiting for the further notice from the government.

Finally, the notice arrived about the restoration of business. Qualified manufacturers would be encouraged to apply for approval to reopen. While this was good news, but what did they mean by qualified? After further exploration, it turned out that a business is qualified when it has sufficient goods for epidemic-prevention including mask, forehead thermometer, gloves, etc. in place to avoid resurgence of cases when business is open.

I once again wrote to my customer:

Hello Steve,

I am very sorry to inform you our office will not open as scheduled. Things here will get worse before getting better and we are trying to have our business restored ASAP in this very difficult time. I hope this will not take long and will keep you posted.
Keep well,

He replied:
Hello Martin,

Thank you for the update. We understand this is an emergency and the difficulty you are in. Do what you have to do. Actually, there have been some cases reported around where we live but everything is just fine here right now.

Stay safe!!

I had almost been driven crazy when trying to purchase the goods for epidemic-prevention to get our business back open. As it turned out, all the factories I contacted that produced the required goods said that they had no goods in-stock and their production had been fully booked.

Finally, one week later, we had all the goods for epidemic-prevention in place, so we put forward our application online for the restoration of our business. While they responded quickly, we would need to be verified by an inspection team before being allowed to open. As the days passed, I became even more anxious, and I did little but try to contact the authority schedule an appointment. Later I discovered that hundreds of enterprises were scrambling to get verified at that time.

One week later, it was scheduled and the verification proceeded pretty smoothly on the scheduled day thanks to our preparation. Three days later, we finally received the official approval. The moment we received the notice, we could not help but shed happy tears. I was excited not only because we can continue our business, but also because of the freedom I earned as I could finally leave my community without restriction, where I had been confined for weeks.

Excited, I once again wrote my customer:

Hello Steve,

I hope you are well. We are excited to inform you that our business will be restored tomorrow. Your orders will be processed ASAP. Thank you for your understanding and support as always.

Kind regards,
He responded:
Hello Martin,
Glad to learn your business will be restored soon. Appreciate everything you have done to make it happen.
Stay safe!


When the goods ordered by the customer were ready to ship a week later, another issue occurred. The freight forwarder’s business, though restored, was not fully in operation due to the limited amount of staff available. It turned out that quite a large proportion of their staff have left Xi’an before the holiday and could not get back to work anytime soon due to the quarantine measures imposed. Since they had no staff available to pick up our goods, we decided to transport the goods to forwarder ourselves. The moment the goods were delivered to the forwarder we finally relieved.

This is what happened to a business in Xi’an engaging in export during the epidemic, a unique but unforgettable experience.