The confusing job market: Tech and finance brace for the worst, retail is mixed, travel can't hire fast enough | Big Indy News
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The confusing job market: Tech and finance brace for the worst, retail is mixed, travel can’t hire fast enough



JetBlue Airways passengers in a crowded terminal on April 7, 2022 in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Robert Nickelsberg | Getty Images News | Getty Images

It wasn’t long ago that Amazon, Shopify and Peloton doubled their workforces to manage through the pandemic surge, while Morgan Stanley staffed up to handle a record level of IPOs and mortgage lenders added headcount as rock-bottom rates led to a refinancing boom.

On the flipside, Delta Air Lines, Hilton Worldwide and legions of restaurants slashed headcount because of lockdowns that rolled through much of the country and other parts of the world.

Now, they’re scrambling to reverse course.

Companies that hired like crazy in 2020 and 2021 to meet customer demand are being forced to make sweeping cuts or impose hiring freezes with a possible recession on the horizon. In a matter of months, CEOs have gone from hyper-growth mode to concerns over “macroeconomic uncertainty,” a phrase investors have heard many times on second-quarter earnings calls. Stock trading app Robinhood and crypto exchange Coinbase both recently slashed more than 1,000 jobs after their splashy market debuts in 2021.

Meanwhile, airlines, hotels and eateries face the opposite problem as their businesses continue to pick up following the era of Covid-induced shutdowns. After instituting mass layoffs early in the pandemic, they can’t hire quickly enough to satisfy demand, and are dealing with a radically different labor market than the one they experienced over two years ago, before the cutbacks.

“The pandemic created very unique, once-in-a-lifetime conditions in many different industries that caused a dramatic reallocation of capital,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at job recruiting site ZipRecruiter. “Many of those conditions no longer apply so you’re seeing a reallocation of capital back to more normal patterns.”

For employers, those patterns are particularly challenging to navigate, because inflation levels have jumped to a 40-year high, and the Fed has lifted its benchmark rate by 0.75 percentage point on consecutive occasions for the first time since the early 1990s.

The central bank’s efforts to tamp down inflation have raised concerns that the U.S. economy is headed for recession. Gross domestic product has fallen for two straight quarters, hitting a widely accepted rule of thumb for recession, though the National Bureau of Economic Research hasn’t yet made that declaration.

The downward trend was bound to happen eventually, and market experts lamented the frothiness in stock prices and absurdity of valuations as late as the fourth quarter of last year, when the major indexes hit record highs led by the riskiest assets.

That was never more evident than in November, when electric vehicle maker Rivian went public on almost no revenue and quickly reached a market cap of over $150 billion. Bitcoin hit a record the same day, touching close to $69,000.

Since then, bitcoin is off by two-thirds, and Rivian has lost about 80% of its value. In July, the car company started layoffs of about 6% of its workforce. Rivian’s headcount almost quintupled to around 14,000 between late 2020 and mid-2022.

Tech layoffs and an air of caution

Job cuts and hiring slowdowns were big talking points on tech earnings calls last week.

Amazon reduced its headcount by 99,000 people to 1.52 million employees at the end of the second quarter after almost doubling in size during the pandemic, when it needed to beef up its warehouse capabilities. Shopify, whose cloud technology helps retailers build and manage online stores, cut roughly 1,000 workers, or around 10% of its global workforce. The company doubled its headcount over a two-year period starting at the beginning of 2020, as the business boomed from the number or stores and restaurants that had to suddenly go digital.

Shopify CEO Tobias Lutke said in a memo to employees that the company had wagered that the pandemic surge would cause the transition from physical retail to ecommerce to “permanently leap ahead by 5 or even 10 years.”

“It’s now clear that bet didn’t pay off,” Lutke wrote, adding that the picture was starting to look more like it did before Covid. “Ultimately, placing this bet was my call to make and I got this wrong. Now, we have to adjust.” 

After Facebook parent Meta missed on its results and forecast a second straight quarter of declining revenue, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company will be reducing job growth over the next year. Headcount expanded by about 60% during the pandemic.

“This is a period that demands more intensity and I expect us to get more done with fewer resources,” Zuckerberg said.

Google parent Alphabet, which grew its workforce by over 30% during the two Covid years, recently told employees that they needed to focus and improve productivity. The company asked for suggestions on how to be more efficient at work.

“It’s clear we are facing a challenging macro environment with more uncertainty ahead,” CEO Sundar Pichai said in a meeting with employees. “We should think about how we can minimize distractions and really raise the bar on both product excellence and productivity.”

Few U.S. companies have been hit as hard as Peloton, which became an instant gym replacement during lockdowns and has since suffered from massive oversupply issues and out-of-control costs. After doubling headcount in the 12 months ended June 30, 2021, the company in February announced plans to cut 20% of corporate positions as it named a new CEO.

Banks and Wall Street bracing for a ‘hurricane’

Some of the Pelotons that were flying off the shelves in the pandemic were being offered as perks for overworked junior bankers, who were sorely needed to help manage a boom in IPOs, mergers and stock issuance. Activity picked up with such ferocity that junior bankers were complaining about 100-hour workweeks, and banks started scouring for talent in unusual places like consulting and accounting firms.

That helps explain why the six biggest U.S. banks added a combined 59,757 employees from the start of 2020 through the middle of 2022, the equivalent of the industry picking up the full population of a Morgan Stanley or a Goldman Sachs in a little over two years.

It wasn’t just investment banking. The government unleashed trillions of dollars in stimulus payments and small business loans designed to keep the economy moving amid the widespread shutdowns. A feared wave of loan defaults never arrived, and banks instead took in an unprecedented flood of deposits. Their Main Street lending operations had better repayment rates than before the pandemic.

Among top banks, Morgan Stanley saw the biggest jump in headcount, with its employee levels expanding 29% to 78,386 from early 2020 to the middle of this year. The growth was fueled in part by CEO James Gorman’s acquisitions of money management firms E-Trade and Eaton Vance.

At rival investment bank Goldman Sachs, staffing levels jumped 22% to 47,000 in the same timeframe, as CEO David Solomon broke into consumer finance and bolstered wealth management operations, including through the acquisition of fintech lender GreenSky.

Citigroup saw a 15% boost in headcount during the pandemic, while JPMorgan Chase added 8.5% to its workforce, becoming the industry’s largest employer.

But the good times on Wall Street didn’t last. The stock market had its worst first half in 50 years and IPOs dried up. Investment banking revenue at the major players declined sharply in the second quarter.

Goldman Sachs responded by slowing hiring and is considering a return to year-end job reductions, according to a person with knowledge of the bank’s plans. Employees typically make up the single biggest line item when it comes to expenses in banking, so when markets crater, layoffs are usually on the horizon. 

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon warned investors in June that an economic “hurricane” was on its way, and said the bank was bracing itself for volatile markets.

Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., during a Bloomberg Television interview in London, U.K., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.

Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

ZipRecruiter’s Pollak said one area in finance where there will likely be a hemorrhaging of workers is in mortgage lending. She said 60% more people went into real estate in 2020 and 2021 because of record low mortgage rates and rising home prices. JPMorgan and Wells Fargo have reportedly trimmed hundreds of mortgage staffers as volumes collapsed.

“Nobody is refinancing anymore, and sales are slowing,” Pollak said. “You’re going to have to see employment levels and hiring slow down. That growth was all about that moment.”

The intersection of Silicon Valley and Wall Street is a particularly gloomy place at the moment as rising rates and crumbling stock multiples converge. Crypto trading platform Coinbase in June announced plans to lay off 18% of its workforce in preparation for a “crypto winter” and even rescinded job offers to people it had hired. Headcount tripled in 2021 to 3,730 employees.

Stock trading app Robinhood said Tuesday it’s cutting about 23% of its workforce, a little over three months after eliminating 9% of its full-time staff, which had ballooned from 2,100 to 3,800 in the last nine months of 2021.

“We are at the tail end of that pandemic-era distortion,” said Aaron Terrazas, chief economist at job search and review site Glassdoor. “Obviously, it’s not going away, but it is changing to a more normalized period, and companies are adapting to this new reality.”

Retail is whipsawing back and forth

In the retail industry, the story is more nuanced. At the onset of the pandemic, a stark divide quickly emerged between businesses deemed to be essential versus those that were not.

Retailers like Target and Walmart that sold groceries and other household goods were allowed to keep their lights on, while malls filled with apparel shops and department store chains were forced to shut down temporarily. Macy’s, Kohl’s and Gap had to furlough the majority of their retail employees as sales screeched to a halt.

But as these businesses reopened and millions of consumers received their stimulus checks, demand roared back to shopping malls and retailers’ websites. Companies hired people back or added to their workforce as quickly as they could.

Last August, Walmart began paying special bonuses to warehouse workers and covering 100% of college tuition and textbook costs for employees. Target rolled out a debt-free college education for full- or part-time employees, and boosted staff by 22% from early 2020 to the start of 2022. Macy’s promised better hourly wages.

They hardly could have predicted how quickly the dynamic would shift, as rapid and soaring inflation forced Americans to tighten their belts. Retailers have already started to warn of waning demand, leaving them with bloated inventories. Gap said higher promotions will hurt gross margins in its fiscal second quarter. Kohl’s cut its guidance for the second quarter, citing softened consumer spending. Walmart last week slashed its profit forecast and said surging prices for food and gas are squeezing consumers.

That pain is filtering into the ad market. Online bulletin board Pinterest on Monday cited “lower than expected demand from U.S. big box retailers and mid-market advertisers” as one reason why it missed Wall Street estimates for second-quarter earnings and revenue.

Retail giants have so far avoided big layoff announcements, but smaller players are in cut mode. Stitch Fix, 7-Eleven and Game Stop have said they’ll be eliminating jobs, and outdoor grill maker Weber warned it’s considering layoffs as sales slow.

The travel industry can’t hire fast enough

With all of the downsizing taking place across wide swaths of the U.S. economy, the applicant pool should be wide open for airlines, restaurants and hospitality companies, which are trying to repopulate their ranks after undergoing mass layoffs when Covid-19 hit.

It’s not so easy. Even though Amazon has reduced headcount of late, it’s still got far more people working in its warehouses than it did two years ago. Last year the company lifted average starting pay to $18 an hour, a level that’s difficult to meet for much of the services industry.

Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta said on the quarterly earnings call in May that he wasn’t satisfied with customer service and that the company needs more workers. At the end of last year, even as travel was rebounding sharply, headcount at Hilton’s managed, owned and leased properties as well as corporate locations was down by over 30,000 from two years earlier.

It’s easy to see why customer service is a challenge. According to a report last week from McKinsey on summer 2022 travel trends, revenue per available room in the U.S. “is outstripping not just 2020 and 2021 levels, but increasingly 2019 levels too.”

Delta Airlines passenger jets are pictured outside the newly completed 1.3 million-square foot $4 billion Delta Airlines Terminal C at LaGuardia Airport in New York, June 1, 2022.

Mike Segar | Reuters

At airlines, headcount fell as low as 364,471 in November 2020, even though that wasn’t supposed to happen. U.S. carriers accepted $54 billion in taxpayer aid to keep staff on their payroll. But while layoffs were prohibited, voluntary buyouts were not, and airlines including Delta and Southwest shed thousands of workers. Delta last month said it has added 18,000 employees since the start of 2021, a similar number to what it let go during the pandemic in order to slash costs.

The industry is struggling to hire and train enough workers, particularly pilots, a process that takes several weeks to meet federal standards. Delta, American Airlines and Spirit Airlines recently trimmed schedules to allow for more wiggle room in handling operational challenges.

“The chief issue we’re working through is not hiring but a training and experience bubble,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said on the quarterly earnings call last month. “Coupling this with the lingering effects of Covid and we’ve seen a reduction in crew availability and higher overtime. By ensuring capacity does not outstrip our resources and working through our training pipeline, we’ll continue to further improve our operational integrity.”

Travelers have been less than pleased. Over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, more than 12,000 flights were delayed due to bad weather and not enough staff. Pilots who took early retirement during the pandemic don’t appear terribly inclined to change their minds now that their services are once again in high demand.

“When we look at labor shortages related to travel, you can’t just flip a switch and suddenly have more baggage handlers that have passed security checks, or pilots,” said Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. “We’re still seeing people not opt in to come back because they don’t like what their employers are dictating in terms of working conditions in a post-lethal pandemic world.”

— CNBC’s Ashley Capoot and Lily Yang contributed to this report.

WATCH: Big Tech reports earnings, most guide higher despite macro headwinds

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Russia’s deportations of Ukrainian children stir accusations of genocide



This article is an onsite version of our Europe Express newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday and Saturday morning

Welcome back. The Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, on Wednesday recognised the Holodomor — the deaths of millions of Ukrainians in a 1932-1933 famine induced by the Soviet collectivisation of farms — as an act of genocide. Now Russia’s abductions and deportations of Ukrainian civilians, including thousands of children, raise the question of whether a new form of genocide is unfolding in Europe. I’m at

For many Ukrainians, the Holodomor is the most horrific national tragedy of a 20th century scarred by war, state violence and mass repressions. Most of this happened after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and, in particular, under Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, the authorities in Kyiv, along with western governments, human rights groups and the UN, have drawn attention to another ugly phenomenon: the “disappearance” of numerous Ukrainians in Russian-occupied areas and their transfer to Russia proper. I will focus on Ukrainian children who have suffered this fate. Is it a war crime? Is it genocide?

The Ukrainian government has a website, Children of War, on which it regularly updates the number of children killed, wounded, missing and deported to Russia. As of yesterday, it estimated those deported at 12,572.

To judge from some Russian reports, the number of child evacuees — a different measure, covering those supposedly moved for their own safety from war zones — may be far higher, at about 200,000.

Investigative news organisations have done some fine work on this topic. One of the best pieces, in my view, is this in-depth report by the Associated Press.

As the AP points out, officials in Moscow defend the transfer of children to Russia on the grounds that they don’t have parents or guardians. Some were moved from orphanages in the Russian-backed separatist area of Donbas, and others from war-ruined, captured cities such as Mariupol.

However, the AP’s reporters also discovered that “officials have deported Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories without consent, lied to them that they weren’t wanted by their parents, used them for propaganda and given them Russian families and citizenship”.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has reached much the same conclusion. In September it reported: “There have been credible allegations of forced transfers of unaccompanied children to Russian occupied territory, or to the Russian Federation itself.

“We are concerned that the Russian authorities have adopted a simplified procedure to grant Russian citizenship to children without parental care, and that these children would be eligible for adoption by Russian families.”

Indeed, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree in May that simplified the procedure for turning Ukrainian orphans into Russian citizens. Among those who have adopted a Ukrainian teenager is none other than Maria Lvova-Belova, Putin’s commissioner for children’s rights.

In September the US Treasury placed sanctions on Lvova-Belova, saying her efforts “specifically include the forced adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families, the so-called ‘patriotic education’ of Ukrainian children, legislative changes to expedite the provision of Russian Federation citizenship to Ukrainian children, and the deliberate removal of Ukrainian children by Russia’s forces”.

Does all this amount to genocide under international law? Timothy Snyder, an eminent American historian of eastern Europe, thinks so. He and others cite the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Article II of this convention is unambiguous on the subject. Section (e) defines one type of genocide against a national, racial, ethnic, racial or religious group as “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”.

But what precisely is the purpose of the Russian authorities in moving children from Ukraine and, in some cases, giving them Russian citizenship? A recent New York Times article made the point that the authorities are hardly concealing their actions. On the contrary, their actions are broadcast on state television “with patriotic fanfare”.

The aim, it appears to me, is partly to demoralise and intimidate the people of Ukraine, and partly to put on a propaganda show to the people of Russia. The message to Russians is: see, our “special military operation” is not a war at all, it’s bursting with humanitarian goodness.

All that said, it’s necessary to keep in mind that mass deportations have a long history in Russia, both in Soviet and in tsarist times.

In 2007 Sciences Po, the Paris-based university, compiled a chronology of deportations under Stalin from the mid-1930s onwards. Finns, Poles, Koreans, Balts, the peoples of the north Caucasus, Crimean Tatars, Germans, Greeks, Armenians, Moldovans — on and on the list goes.

In the tsarist era, one of the largest deportations occurred in 1864: the ethnic cleansing of Circassians in the north Caucasus.

On several occasions in the 18th and 19th centuries, Poles were deported en masse to Siberia. They suffered a similar fate, in even larger numbers, after Stalin’s invasion of Poland in 1939. The definitive study is the late British historian Keith Sword’s Deportation and Exile: Poles in the Soviet Union 1939-1948.

In our times, Russia’s 1999-2000 war in Chechnya led to the “enforced disappearance” of thousands of Chechens, according to Human Rights Watch. Similar actions against Crimean Tatars followed Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

In other words, Russia’s deportations of Ukrainians, including children, fit a well-established historical pattern of behaviour. It is another question whether the Russian authorities will ever be held to account.

What do you think? Does Russia’s treatment of Ukrainian children qualify as genocide? Vote here.

More on this topic

Vladimir Putin’s Telegram hawks — Andrey Pertsev explains on the Riddle website how a messenger app became a platform for pro-war Russian nationalists.

Notable, quotable

“This case reaffirms the strength of our democracy and the institutions that protect and preserve it, including our criminal justice system” — Matthew Graves, US attorney for the District of Columbia, speaks after Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, a rightwing militia, was convicted of seditious conspiracy in connection with the January 2021 assault on the US Capitol

Tony’s picks of the week

  • Youth unemployment in China is stoking student protests against the Communist party’s zero-Covid policies, the FT’s Thomas Hale in Shanghai and Arjun Neil Alim in London report.

  • Ten years after the EU embarked on the project of a banking union to complement its single currency, the task remains unfulfilled in important respects, but there are opportunities for progress. The Brussels-based Bruegel think-tank analyses what needs to be done.

In case you missed it, for the FT’s Best Books of the Year series, I selected 10 history books which stand out from 2022 — you can read my list here, and see the rest of the annual round-up here.

Britain after Brexit — Keep up to date with the latest developments as the UK economy adjusts to life outside the EU. Sign up here

Working it — Discover the big ideas shaping today’s workplaces with a weekly newsletter from work & careers editor Isabel Berwick. Sign up here

Are you enjoying Europe Express? Sign up here to have it delivered straight to your inbox every workday at 7am CET and on Saturdays at noon CET. Do tell us what you think, we love to hear from you: Keep up with the latest European stories @FT Europe

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After Fanning Covid Fears, China Must Now Try to Allay Them



For nearly three years, the Chinese government deployed its considerable propaganda apparatus to fan fears about Covid to justify large-scale quarantines, frequent mass testing and the tracking of more than a billion people. As the authorities now shift their approach to the pandemic, they face the task of downplaying those fears.

Until the past week, during which there were rallies voicing extraordinary public opposition to the stringent “zero Covid” rules, government officials and state media were still emphasizing the most ominous medical news about the pandemic. There were countless stories about the high death toll suffered elsewhere — especially in the United States — and about the months of respiratory problems, cognitive impairment and other difficulties associated with long Covid.

The official newspaper of the Communist Party, People’s Daily, warned on Nov. 15 that any loosening of Covid measures would endanger the lives and health of the Chinese people: “The relaxation of prevention and control will inevitably increase the risk of infection of susceptible groups.”

Just a week and a half ago, the vice premier overseeing the government’s Covid responses, Sun Chunlan, said that “anyone who should be tested must be tested, and no one should be left behind.”

But as local governments now hurry to dismantle testing requirements and start hauling away curbside test booths, Ms. Sun changed tack on Wednesday. “China’s pandemic prevention faces a new situation and new tasks, given the weakening severity of the Omicron variant,” she said.

China faces a challenging moment in its pandemic response, experts say, in large part because of muddled messaging. The government has failed to take many proven public health measures, such as aggressive campaigns for full vaccination, leaving many citizens of the world’s most populous nation at risk.

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, had personally affirmed that sacrifices were needed to stop the spread of Covid. “It would be better to temporarily affect a little the development of the economy than to let the people’s life, safety and health be harmed,” he said in June.

Beijing is now rapidly moving to lighten the burden of Covid restrictions. Some neighborhood committees are beginning to let residents stay home if they or their family members are infected, instead of transporting them to makeshift hospitals, vast stadiums or long rows of shipping containers, standard procedure since the early months of the pandemic. Chengdu, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Beijing, Chongqing and Shenzhen have all lifted requirements in the past several days for residents to show negative Covid tests before taking the subway or entering other public places.

Yet allaying Covid worries bordering on terror among millions of people, particularly older residents, is proving a challenge for the Communist Party and state media. Further complicating matters is that China’s leaders have a long history of not wanting to look as though they are reversing policies because of public anger.

Throughout the government’s unbending response, the country has struggled to adequately vaccinate some of its most vulnerable: Of people ages 80 and older, two-thirds have done the initial course of vaccinations, usually two doses, but only 40 percent have received a booster dose.

International scientists say that three of China’s vaccines are needed to achieve protection comparable to two mRNA vaccines in the West.

Missing from the state media’s new reporting about Covid has been any mention of the recent days’ protests. The coverage has shifted to research by Chinese scientists that the Omicron variant may not be as dangerous as earlier versions of the virus.

Southern Daily, a state-controlled newspaper in Guangzhou, published on Saturday a report emphasizing a municipal estimate that 90 percent of Omicron infections were asymptomatic. Citing interviews with seven leading Guangzhou doctors, the newspaper also reassured readers that symptomatic cases were seldom serious, except among elderly, unvaccinated residents.

Many other countries have found Omicron to be less deadly but more infectious. There have been nearly 7 million confirmed deaths of Covid worldwide, while China says that it has suffered just over 5,000 deaths.

On Thursday, Global Times, another Communist Party publication, quoted a doctor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou who questioned the existence of long Covid, a complex cluster of post-infection symptoms, sometimes debilitating, that has been chronicled extensively by U.S. government epidemiologists.

“There are no confirmed sequelae of Covid-19,” said Dr. Chong Yutian, using a medical term for lingering consequences after an infection or injury. Dr. Chong did not respond to a request for comment.

Guiding public opinion in a new direction will not be easy for China, because state media had effectively suppressed any suggestion that Covid might be manageable.

“Until recently the experts were all geared to supporting the policy against Covid,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “The media is suddenly going all the way in the direction that the virus has mutated and is less pathogenic.”

Better communication, including on the importance of vaccination, is essential for China to manage its emergence from Covid restrictions, said Jin Dongyan, a Hong Kong University virologist. Many in China are still so afraid of the virus that they may stay home from even grocery stores as the country begins to open up, which could cause further economic harm, he warned.

“To educate the general public is really important, and that’s what they need to strengthen, because right now the public is confused and divided,” he said.

Jiang Sigui, 60, a corn farmer in Guangxi, an impoverished region in southernmost China, said that he worried that the easing of “zero Covid” restrictions would lead to a wave of infections that could overwhelm rural villages like his, with limited health care facilities. He fears for his ability to continue raising his grandchildren if he falls ill.

“I support the fight against Covid,” he said. “Right now, I’m at home, raising children. I definitely worry about the virus — who doesn’t?”

Yet many young and middle-aged residents of China do appear to be less afraid of Covid than they are troubled by the restrictions that China has imposed to control its spread. That sentiment became apparent in the recent protests.

China has halted almost all international travel during the pandemic and wields ever stricter censorship of the internet, including an almost complete block on access to foreign websites. Many of the protests took place in coastal provinces where residents often have the internet tools to see overseas websites that show them how the rest of the world has adjusted to life with Covid.

Yet interviews with people in Lanzhou, a provincial capital in western China, indicate that a desire for a shift in Covid policy has reached China’s huge interior as well.

Zhang Zechen, a 20-year-old university student, said that she had been confined to her dorm under lockdown for much of the past semester. The university required her to have a PCR test every fourth day. When the university offered students the chance to leave a month early for Lunar New Year celebrations, to reduce the risk of transmission, she jumped at the chance.

“I felt tired of PCR testing,” Ms. Zhang said. “Everyone feels stir crazy.”

A 24-year-old migrant worker said that he was infected with Covid last September while working in Tibet, but found that the only symptoms of his illness were a few days of coughing. He was critical of policies like locking residents in their homes for weeks, sometimes corralling more than a million people, after even a handful of cases.

“A lockdown should never be expanded to a whole district, affecting people’s normal travel and work,” said the worker, who gave only his family name, Ma, in discussing his personal health.

Yet even as China adopts a more reassuring stance about the dangers of Covid, many experts urge caution. They contend that the government has not yet done enough to vaccinate the elderly, prepare hospitals and educate the public.

“If they unroll all the restrictions too quickly, it’s probably going to lead to a large number of cases and economic disruptions,” said Andy Chen, a public health analyst in the Shanghai office of Trivium China, a consulting firm.

Li You contributed research.

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How to emerge a hero from the tension of a World Cup penalty shootout



How to take a penalty, and how to save one? With the World Cup’s knockout stages starting on Saturday, these questions could decide who wins the trophy. At the 2018 tournament, four games in the knockout rounds were tied after 120 minutes and won on penalty shoot-outs. This time, some teams have prepared better than ever. Others have not.

The first thing to know is how your opponents shoot. Broadly, every kicker has to answer one question: do you wait until the keeper moves? Croatia’s Luka Modrić does. He runs up slowly, head raised, watching the keeper for the slightest indication — even a lifted heel — of which way he’ll move. At that cue, Modrić taps the ball the other way. He has converted 21 of his 24 career penalties, or 88 per cent, according to Transfermarkt. The football-wide conversion rate has dropped over the past decade from 82 per cent to about 75 per cent, probably because data analysis helps teams decrypt opposing kickers.

A keeper facing Modrić — or Poland’s Robert Lewandowski — will want to stay immobile as long as possible. That worked for Uruguay’s Sergio Rochet against Ghana on Friday: unfooled by André Ayew’s slow approach, he chose the right corner, helping send Uruguay through to the knockouts at the Ghanaians’ expense.

England’s chief penalty-taker Harry Kane requires a different method, because he doesn’t watch the keeper. His former club coach José Mourinho once said: “Harry decides . . . a few days before the game how he is going to take it and then spends three or four days before the game practising that shot and I just love that.” Kane varies the direction of his penalties well, so a keeper must pick a side more or less randomly, and dive instantly. Good luck: Kane’s conversion rate is 85 per cent.

Lesser kickers sometimes waver between Kane’s strategy and Modrić’s. One example is France’s Antoine Griezmann, who has missed five of his last seven spot-kicks.

Italy’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma saves a penalty taken by England’s Bukayo Saka in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley © Paul ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Argentina’s Lionel Messi also has a flaw in his approach that will be apparent to analysts who study sequences rather than merely counting how many penalties are placed in which corner: he seldom repeats his last kick. Last week Messi scored to the Saudi keeper’s right, then hit a well-struck shot to the left of Poland’s Wojciech Szczęsny, who saved. The world’s best footballer has a distinctly average career penalty conversion rate of 77 per cent, according to Transfermarkt. His rival, Portugal’s Cristiano “Penaldo” Ronaldo, is six percentage points better.

But these are specialists, and in shoot-outs a team must choose five kickers. Players who never normally take penalties suddenly find themselves making the long, lonely walk to take the kick of a lifetime. Under extreme stress, few dare wait ice-cold for the keeper’s move. Instead, inexperienced kickers tend to hit the simplest penalty: a drive to their “natural side”, which for a right-footed kicker means right of the keeper. The historical conversion rate in World Cup shoot-outs is only 70.3 per cent, calculates data provider Opta.

The Dutch have nominated one of their three keepers as their designated “penalty killer”, but won’t reveal who it is. If it isn’t starter Andries Noppert, coach Louis van Gaal might bring on the specialist just before the shootout, as he did with Tim Krul at the World Cup in 2014 against Costa Rica. Krul stood towering over each opposing kicker, trash-talking him, and the Dutch won.

That was a case of a keeper’s aura intimidating opponents. One beneficiary from that in Qatar might be Switzerland’s Yann Sommer, who has graduated from average penalty-stopper to penalty-killer: since September 2019 he has saved five of the 11 he faced in all competitions.

England have suffered more penalty anguish than perhaps any country except Spain. When Gareth Southgate became their manager in 2016, they had lost five straight shoot-outs. Southgate — who himself missed England’s decisive kick in the Euro 1996 semi-final against Germany — has tried to recreate the full ambience of shoot-outs in training sessions. His men have also been taught a key statistic, writes Paul Hayward in England Football: The Biography. “Players who take a slow run-up score 80 per cent of the time, while those who run in faster convert only 60 per cent.” 

Southgate has removed some responsibility from his players by choosing England’s kickers himself. That banishes the spectacle of a manager begging exhausted, stressed players to have a go, as Spain’s coach Fernando Hierro did against Russia in 2018. Forward Diego Costa was caught by TV cameras warning not to choose Koke. Hierro insisted: “Koke is good.” After the midfielder missed and Russia won, Costa growled, “I told you.”

Managerial choice also stops incompetent penalty-takers, such as England’s Raheem Sterling, from counterproductively volunteering themselves. Southgate’s team did beat Colombia on penalties at the last World Cup. But homework cannot guarantee success: England lost the final of Euro 2020 on penalties, perhaps awed by the size and shot-stopping brilliance of Italy’s 6ft 5in goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Luck matters in shoot-outs. But to paraphrase the golfer Arnold Palmer, the more teams prepare, the luckier they tend to get.

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