China Roundup: Mega trade fair goes online, anti-China sentiment hobbles developers

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what those events mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, we are seeing the backlash Chinese tech companies face around the world as anti-China sentiment escalates. In China, one of the world’s largest trade fairs kicked off, virtually.

China tech abroad

Boycotting Chinese tech  

Chinese apps are facing major challenges in India after an app named Remove China Apps that made it easy for users to delete China-related services went viral. Though Google has pulled the app, anti-China sentiment will likely haunt Chinese apps in India as political tensions between the countries heighten. Several Indian celebrities in recent days have supported deleting Chinese apps. Yoga guru Baba Ramdev tweeted a video over the weekend that showed him deleting several apps with an affiliation with China.

Decoupling from Chinese tech might not be easy in practice. Four out of the top five smartphone brands in India are Chinese, according to Counterpoint data, three of which belong to the enigmatic BBK Electronics group based in Shenzhen. These Android phones normally come bundled with a suite of Chinese utility apps, so users would have to find alternatives were they to abandon the Chinese options.

Indian smartphone shipments market share (Counterpoint)

China tech back home

Tencent Cloud powers mega trade show

The coronavirus outbreak is prompting people to bring everything online — including mega-size trade shows. This week, Tencent announced that it will provide technological infrastructure to digitize China’s oldest and biggest trade fair Canto Fair, which was postponed due to the coronavirus and later rescheduled to run virtually from June 15 to 24.

The project is no small feat for Tencent. Last year, the trade show, which took place in China’s major trade city Guangzhou, attracted just below 200,000 buyers with turnover reaching nearly $30 billion.

The social networking and gaming giant, which has a growing cloud unit, will deploy more than 1,300 acceleration nodes across some 30 countries to handle the traffic of several hundred thousand exhibitors and buyers (1,100 of these acceleration nodes will be in China).

The virtual system will support essential trade show functionalities such as matchmaking between exhibitors and buyers, product demonstrations through videos and interactive live streaming.

The project will also acquire users for Tencent’s enterprise-facing services, which have become the giant’s new growth focus. For instance, Tencent Meeting, a Zoom equivalent, can host up to 300 participants per session. The app is currently the most downloaded iOS “business” app in China, according to App Annie.

ERP startup Jushuitan raised $100 million

Jushuitan, a six-year-old Shanghai-based startup focused on ERP (enterprise resources planning) tailored to e-commerce, announced completing a $100 million Series C round led by Goldman Sachs. While China’s consumer-facing internet companies are in many ways on par with their American counterparts, the country is still “5-10 years behind in the area of enterprise software,” stated Sun Mengxi, managing director at Goldman Sachs.

The firm’s software-as-a-service solutions have served more than 500,000 e-commerce clients in China, but it’s looking for overseas expansion — which will use some of the proceeds from this round of funding. The fresh capital will also help upgrade the Jushuitan’s products and services, work on its integration into supply chains, as well as allow it to invest in or acquire other companies.

Jushuitan is betting on the need for digitization in China’s massive online retail industry, which has seen exponential growth since the early 2010s. Chief executive and founder Luo Haidong contended in a previous interview that the “watershed” in Chinese e-commerce happened around 2013-2014.

“When e-commerce first emerged, stores were able to sell all their inventory as long as they managed their orders well. But as the number of stores increased and growth slowed after 2014, there was a greater need to improve management. I clearly felt that the market was calling for an integrated system to manage orders, warehouses and supply chains — that gave Jushuitan a great opportunity.”

Tibet to become China’s data gateway to South Asia

A sprawling 645,000-square-meter data facility is going up on the top of the world to power data exchange between China and its neighboring countries in South Asia.

The cloud computing and data center, perched on the plateau city Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and developed by private tech firm Ningsuan Technologies, has entered pilot operation as it announced the completion of the first construction phase, China’s state news agency Xinhua reported (in Chinese) on Sunday.

Northeast of the Himalayas, Tibet was incorporated as an autonomous region of China in 1950. Over the decades, the Chinese government has been grappling with demand from many Tibetans for more religious freedom and human rights in one of its most critical regions for national security.

The plateau is now a bridge for China to South Asia under the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s ambitious global infrastructure project. Ningsuan, a Tibet-headquartered company with data control centers in Beijing and research teams in Nanjing, is betting on the increasing trade and investment activity between China and India, Nepal, Bangladesh and other countries that are part of the BRI.

This generates the need for robust IT infrastructure in the region to support data transmission, Hu Xiao, Ningsuan’s general manager, contended in a previous media interview.

While hot days and spotty power supply in certain South Asian regions incur higher costs for running data centers, Tibet, like the more established data hub in Guizhou province, is a natural data haven thanks to its temperate climate and low average temperature that are ideal for keeping servers cool.

Construction of the Lhasa data center began in 2017 and is scheduled for completion around 2025 or 2026, a grand investment that will total almost 12 billion yuan or $1.69 billion. The cloud facility is estimated to generate 10 billion yuan in revenue each year when it goes into full operation.

Alibaba has skin in the game as well. In 2018, the Chinese e-commerce giant, which has a growing cloud computing business, sealed an agreement (in Chinese) with Ningsuan to bring cloud services to industries in the Tibetan region that span electricity supply, finance, national security, government affairs, public security, to cyberspace.

What grocery startup Weee! learned from China’s tech giants

When Larry Liu moved to the U.S. in 2003, one of the first challenges he experienced was the lack of Chinese ingredients available in local groceries. A native of Hubei, a Chinese province famous for its freshwater fish and lotus-inspired dishes, Liu got by with a limited supply found at local Asian groceries in the Bay Area.

His yearning for home food eventually prompted him to quit a stable financial management role at microcontroller company Atmel and go on to launch Weee!, an online market selling Asian produce, snacks and skincare products.

Like other players in grocery e-commerce, the five-year-old startup has seen exponential growth since the coronavirus outbreak as millions are confined to cooking and eating at home. Nearly a quarter of Americans purchased groceries online to avoid offline shopping during the pandemic, according to Statista data. Online grocery giants Instacart and Walmart Grocery boomed, both hitting record downloads.

In a Zoom call with TechCrunch, Liu, who’s now chief executive of Weee!, said that COVID-19 played a “very important role” in his company’s recent growth, and paved its way to profitability.

“It happened a lot faster than we expected, but we were growing rapidly with even more ambitious plans for expansion prior to COVID-19,” he said. “People are buying more because restaurants are closed. Many are first-time users of grocery delivery.”

The startup’s revenue is up 700% year-over-year and is estimated to generate an annual revenue in the lower hundreds of millions of dollars.

Online grocery, the WeChat way

Prosecutors seek arrest warrant against Samsung heir Jay Lee

South Korean prosecutors said on Thursday that they have filed an arrest warrant for Samsung Group’s anointed heir Jay Y. Lee and two other former company executives as part of a sprawling investigation into an alleged accounting fraud and a controversial merger that shook the country.

In May, Lee appeared before prosecutors to be questioned over the merger of two Samsung units. Prosecutors suspected that the value of Cheil Industries, an electronics materials provider, was intentionally inflated before its 2015 merger with Samsung C&T, Samsung Group’s de facto holdings company, to achieve a favorable rate for the heir, who was at the time the biggest shareholder in Cheil Industries.

Critics argued that the merger made Lee the largest shareholder of Samsung’s de-facto holding company and smoothed the way for his succession from his hailing father.

Lee has previously denied charges. Samsung cannot be immediately reached for comment.

A service that detects ‘China apps’ goes viral in India

The app’s name says it all: Remove China Apps.

Developed by a self-proclaimed “Indian startup” named OneTouch AppLabs, Remove China Apps crossed 1 million downloads within 10 days of launch in May. Its overnight success came amid rising China-Indian tensions over the countries’ disputed border in the Himalayas.

Most of the app’s installs are found in India, although analytics data from App Annie shows that it has been gaining momentum in Australia in the last few days, rising to No.5 among Android tools apps.

The app is straightforward to use: Click scan and it will either congratulates one on having no Chinese apps or displays a list of those that are determined to be of Chinese origin — like TikTok.

India is one of the top overseas destinations for Chinese tech companies. Xiaomi and Oppo have dominated mobile sales there for some time and a significant number of top Android apps in the country are developed by Chinese companies, as my former colleague Jon Russell acutely pointed out.

On Android, Remove China Apps has a near-perfect 4.9 out of 5 stars rating from nearly 180,000 reviews. It claims it can identify an app’s country of origin based on market research, while it does not guarantee the result’s accuracy. It leaves the choice to users to remove the apps it flags, saying it provides the service for non-commercial purposes.

Despite its instant popularity, the app’s background is cryptic. The company website is a simple WordPress-based site and Remove China Apps is, in its own word, its first product. This is an underwhelming achievement in contrast to its grandiose statement claiming it has “experience of 8+ years in mobile and web application design, development and management.”

It’s also unclear how the developer defines “China apps.” For instance, will apps developed by overseas Chinese sound an alarm? How about a Chinese subsidiary that operates a fully localized team abroad? User tests show that it flags the U.S. video conferencing giant Zoom. Does the fact that its founder Eric Yuan, an American citizen born in China, makes Zoom a “China app”? Meanwhile, it misses some obvious targets, like Chinese apps that come bundled with smartphones.

As of the writing, we haven’t heard back from the company regarding the methodologies it uses to spot “China apps.” It does, however, disclose online what information it collects from users, including one’s device model, the language set for the device system, the device manufacturer and app-specific information such as the version code of apps, the version name of apps, and the package name of apps.

The app has prompted heated debate among Chinese developers targeting international markets. Baijing, or Beluga Whale, a popular online community for China’s app exporters, wrote (in Chinese) that Remove China Apps is “a form of market disruption” and called on Chinese developers to report the app to Google.

Many are wary of rising anti-China sentiment overseas. As the founder of a major app exporter said to me: “I think what happens in India will happen in other countries in the future, so this is a long-term impact that should factor into Chinese developers’ calculation.”

There’s perhaps some assurance for Chinese developers. While users of the detection app applaud its mission, a few complain that there are no immediate replacements of certain Chinese apps. One of the top indigenous alternatives recommended by users is Jio Platforms, the well-funded Reliance subsidiary that operates a wide range of mobile apps.

China Roundup: SoftBank leads Didi’s $500M round and Meituan crosses $100B valuation

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. Last week, we had a barrage of news ranging from SoftBank’s latest bet on China’s autonomous driving sector to Chinese apps making waves in the U.S. (not TikTok).

China tech abroad

The other Chinese apps trending in America

TikTok isn’t the only app with a Chinese background that’s making waves in the U.S. A brand new short-video app called Zynn has been topping the iOS chart in America since May 26, just weeks after its debut. Zynn’s maker is no stranger to Chinese users: it was developed by short-video platform Kuaishou, the nemesis of Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese sister.

The killer feature behind Zynn’s rise is an incentive system that pays people small amounts of cash to sign up, watch videos or invite others to join, a common user acquisition tactic in the Chinese internet industry.

The other app that’s been trending in the U.S. for a while is News Break, a hyper-local news app founded by China’s media veteran Jeff Zheng, with teams in China and the U.S. It announced a heavy-hitting move last week as it onboards Harry Shum, former boss of Microsoft AI and Research Group, as its board chairman.

Alibaba looks for overseas influencers

The Chinese e-commerce giant is searching for live-streaming hosts in Europe and other overseas countries to market its products on AliExpress, its marketplace for consumers outside China. Live-streaming dancing and singing is nothing new, but the model of selling through live videos, during which consumers can interact with a salesperson or session host, has gained major ground in China as shops remained shut for weeks during the coronavirus outbreak.

In Q1 2020, China recorded more than 4 million e-commerce live-streaming sessions across various platforms, including Alibaba. Now the Chinese giant wants to replicate its success abroad, pledging that the new business model can create up to 100,000 new jobs for content creators around the world.

Oppo in Germany

Oppo announced last week its new European headquarters in Düsseldorf, Germany, a sign that the Chinese smartphone maker has gotten more serious on the continent. The move came weeks after it signed a distribution deal with Vodafone to sell its phones in seven European countries. Oppo was also one of the first manufacturers to launch a 5G commercial phone in Europe.

Chinese tech stocks return

We speculated last week that Hong Kong might become an increasingly appealing destination for U.S.-listed Chinese tech companies, many of which will be feeling the heat of tightening accounting rules targeting foreign companies. Two firms have already taken action. JD.com and NetEase, two of China’s biggest internet firms, have won approvals to list in Hong Kong, Bloomberg reported, citing sources.

China tech back home

SoftBank doubles down on Didi

Massive losses in SoftBank’s first Vision Fund didn’t seem to deter the Japanese startup benefactor from placing bold bets. China’s ride-hailing giant Didi has completed an outsized investment of over $500 million in its new autonomous driving subsidiary. The financing led by SoftBank marked the single-largest fundraising round in China’s autonomous driving sector.

The capital will give Didi a huge boost in the race to win the autonomous driving race, where it is a relative latecomer. It’s competing with deep-pocketed players that are aggressively testing across the world, including the likes of Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, and startups such as Momenta, NIO and Pony.ai.

Marriage of e-commerce and live streaming

Speaking of live-streaming e-commerce, two of China’s biggest internet companies have teamed up to exploit the new business model. JD, the online retailer that is Alibaba’s long-time archrival, has signed a strategic partnership with Kuaishou — yes, the maker of Zynn and TikTok’s rival in China.

The collaboration is part of a rising trend in the Chinese internet, where short video apps and e-commerce platforms pally up to explore new monetization avenues. The thinking goes that video platforms can leverage the trust that influencers instill in their audience to tout products.

Meituan hit record valuation

Despite reporting an unprofitable first quarter, Meituan, a leader in China’s food delivery sector, saw its shares reach a record high last week to bring its valuation to over $100 billion.

Notion got banned in China, briefly

Notion, the fast-growing work collaboration tool that recently hit a $2 billion valuation and has attracted a loyal following in China, was briefly banned in China last week. It’s still investigating the cause of the ban, but the timing noticeably coincided with China’s annual parliament meeting, which began last week after a two-month delay due to COVID-19. Internet regulation and censorship normally toughen around key political meetings in the country.

SoftBank led $500M investment in Didi in China’s biggest autonomous driving round

The race to automate vehicles on China’s roads is heating up. Didi, the Uber of China, announced this week an outsized investment of over $500 million in its freshly minted autonomous driving subsidiary. Leading the round — the single largest fundraising round in China’s autonomous driving sector — is its existing investor Softbank, the Japanese telecom giant and startup benefactor that has also backed Uber.

The proceeds came through Softbank’s second Vision Fund, which was reportedly lagging in fundraising as its Fund I recorded massive losses in part due to the collapsing valuation of WeWork.

As China’s largest ride-hailing provider with mountains of traffic data, Didi clearly has an upper hand in developing robotaxis, which could help address driver shortage in the long term. But it was relatively late to the field. In 2018, Didi ranked eighth in kilometers of autonomous driving tests carried out in Beijing, far behind search giant Baidu which accounted for over 90% of the total mileage that year.

It’s since played aggressive catchup. Last August, it spun off its then three-year-old autonomous driving unit into an independent company to focus on R&D, building partnerships along the value chain, and promoting the futuristic technology to the government. The team now has a staff of 200 across its China and U.S. offices.

As an industry observer told me, “robotaxis will become a reality only when you have the necessary operational skills, technology and government support all in place.”

Didi is most famous for its operational efficiency, as facilitating safe and pleasant rides between drivers and passengers is no small feat. The company’s leadership hails from Alibaba’s legendary business-to-business sales team, also known as the “Alibaba Iron Army” for its ability in on-the-ground operation.

On the tech front, the subsidiary is headed by chief executive Zhang Bo, a Baidu veteran, and chief technology officer Wei Junqing, who joined last year from self-driving software company Aptiv.

The autonomous segment can also benefit from Didi’s all-encompassing reach in the mobility industry. For instance, it’s working to leverage the parent company’s smart charging networks, fleet maintenance service and insurance programs for autonomous fleets.

The fresh capital will enable Didi’s autonomous business to improve safety — an area that became a focal point of the company after two deadly accidents — and efficiency through conducting R&D and road tests. The financing will also allow it to deepen industry cooperation and accelerate the deployment of robotaxi services in China and abroad.

Over the years, Didi has turned to traditional carmakers for synergies in what it dubs the “D-Alliance,” which counts more than 31 partners. It has applied autonomous driving technology to vehicles from Lincoln, Nissan, Volvo, BYD, to name a few.

Didi has secured open-road testing licenses in three major cities in China as well as California. It said last August that it aimed to begin picking up ride-hailing passengers with autonomous cars in Shanghai in a few months’ time. It’s accumulated 300,000 kilometers of road tests in China and the U.S. as of last August.

The headline of this article was corrected on May 29, 2020.

Meet News Break, the news app trending in America founded by a Chinese media veteran

TikTok isn’t the only new media app with Chinese background that’s making waves in the U.S. News Break, a news app founded by China’s media veteran Jeff Zheng with teams in Beijing, Shanghai, Seattle and Mountain View, has been sitting among the top three news apps in the U.S. App Store since March, according to third-party data from Sensor Tower.

Positioned as a news aggregator focused on local reporting, the platform surged to be the third-most downloaded U.S. iOS app across the board in mid-March.

The fledgling news app announced this week a substantial boost as it onboards Harry Shum as its board chairman. Shum is the former president of Microsoft AI and Research Group and played a key role in establishing the Microsoft Research Asia lab, which has trained a raft of China’s top AI talents including the founder of autonomous driving unicorn Momenta.

Former Microsoft executive Harry Shum joins News Break, a local news aggregator founded in the U.S. by a Chinese media veteran (Photo source: News Break)

News Break is staffed with other storied overseas Chinese tech bosses. Jeff Zheng, the founding chief executive, headed up Yahoo Labs in Beijing where he oversaw algorithm improvements in search, media, advertising and mobile. In 2011, he left Yahoo to launch Yidian Zixun, the Beijing-based startup seen early on as the main rival of Toutiao, the hit news app that made ByteDance a household name in China before Douyin emerged. Together with other algorithm-driven news apps, the duo changed the habits of hundreds of millions in China from consuming human-curated news to machine-recommended content with minimal human oversight.

News Break is Zheng’s effort to replicate Yidian Zixun’s success in foreign markets with his co-founder Ren Xuyang, a former Baidu executive. Founded in Silicon Valley in 2015, News Break now boasts 23 million monthly users with a growing network of over 10,000 content providers.

Screenshots of the News Break app (Source: News Break)

The type of personalized reading experience pioneered by Toutiao is now a default feature across media apps in the U.S., said (in Chinese) Vincent Wu, chief operating officer of News Break, at an event in Silicon Valley. To stand out from the crowd, the company serves up local news and happenings for readers, for Wu observed that America’s mainstream media focus overwhelmingly on national affairs and celebrity gossip, “news that’s irrelevant to my day-to-day.”

“Only high-quality, hyper-relevant local news can provide valuable information to readers,” he added.

ByteDance has tried exporting the Toutiao model through TopBuzz, but the overseas edition never achieved mainstream success and is reportedly looking for a buyer.

Other big names involved in News Break range from Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang who joined as the chief advisor as well as Wu, HuffPost’s former operations head.

Particle Media, the Delaware-registered operating entity of News Break, has raised over $20 million to date from investors including IDG Capital, ZhenFund and Ding Lei, the founder of Chinese online media and gaming giant NetEase.

China’s top short video apps and e-commerce giants pally up

JD.com, the online retailer that is Alibaba’s long-time nemesis, announced Wednesday a strategic partnership with Kuaishou, the main rival of TikTok’s sibling in China, Douyin.

The collaboration is part of a rising trend in the Chinese internet where short video apps and e-commerce platforms increasingly turn to each other for monetization synergies. The thinking goes that video platforms can leverage the trust that influencers instill in their audience to tout products ranging from cosmetics to electronics. Much of the transaction happens over live broadcasting — a bit misleading as these apps are billed as “short video” apps with live video features — which allows for real-time interaction between merchants and shoppers. COVID-19 has certainly advanced live-streamed shopping in a time when Chinese consumers were confined indoors.

The marriage of live broadcasting and e-commerce is reminiscent of what happened at the start of the social networking boom, which saw microblogging platform Weibo and Alibaba team up for similar motivation: expand content platforms’ revenue streams beyond advertising by turning content consumers into shoppers.

Retail requires such a different set of industry know-how that pure internet companies — social networks and video apps — are compelled to find allies in supply chains and logistics. Douyin has similarly tapped Alibaba for the latter’s retail resources and TikTok started testing social commerce recently.

This isn’t the first time that Kuaishou — which totals more than 300 million daily active users compared to Douyin’s 400 million — has sought out an e-commerce partner. It briefly worked with Alibaba’s Taobao and Pinduoduo, a rising challenger to Alibaba. What’s at stake is the fight for control over user data and traffic. After all, who’s entitled to all the data generated from these live-streamed transactions?

The JD-Kuaishou alliance seems to have settled on a friendly agreement. The online retailer will let Kuaishou users purchase JD products directly within the video app, a big leap from Kuaishou’s previous arrangement with other retail partners, which would redirect shoppers to buy on the e-commerce apps.

The collaboration appears to be a win-win. For Kuaishou, adding e-commerce capabilities will bring new revenues not only to itself but also to its influencers, strengthening their loyalty to the video platform. JD, on the other hand, can lean on Kuaishou’s popularity in small towns and rural villages to advance its goal to “further penetrate into lower-tier cities where hundreds of millions of consumers have a growing but underserved demand for quality products and upgraded services.”

Cathay Innovation’s first investment in Germany is healthcare startup Medwing

Medwing, a German startup with an ambition to tackle Europe’s shortage of healthcare workers, said on Tuesday that it has secured €28 million ($30 million) in a Series B financing round. Global venture capital firm Cathay Innovation led the round, marking its first investment in a German company. Other participating investors include Northzone, Cherry Ventures and Atlantic Labs.

The World Bank forecasted a worldwide shortage of 15 million health professionals by 2030, with demand being highest in affluent regions like Europe with an aging labor force and an aging population in need of care.

The pressing issue inspired Johannes Roggendorf, who previously worked at Rocket Internet and Bain & Company, to launch Medwing in 2017 and later brought on his co-founder Dr. Timo Fischer. The entrepreneurs discovered that, contrary to conventional wisdom, many healthcare workers in Europe wanted to work more, not less. Part of the reason why jobs were not filled was information asymmetry that led to a mismatch between supply and demand.

“There is a group of people who are willing to work more if they can manage their schedule,” Roggendorf told TechCrunch over a phone interview. “There are many qualified workers who left the healthcare system often because of inflexible working hours.”

In a survey that Medwing conducted, 50% of those who left the healthcare system said they would return if they were given more flexible working conditions.

Medwing’s solution is an automatic job matching system connecting workers with hospitals, nursing homes and other medical institutions. Focusing on Europe, the startup has so far registered more than 200,000 workers and 2,500 partner employers — including 80% hospitals in Berlin . Employers pay Medwing a commission every time a candidate is successfully placed. Each month, the platform is adding 15,000 new applicants, placing over 100 health experts in permanent positions and filling some 2,000 individual shifts. 20% of its users are looking for non-permanent jobs, according to Roggendorf.

The platform strives to differentiate itself by “starting with the candidates,” asserted the founder. Unlike traditional staffing sites, which search for applicants based on recruiters’ criteria, Medwing does the opposite and filters recruiters according to candidates’ preferences on whether the position is flexible or permanent, part-time or full-time. It’s an approach that the founder believes can optimize worker satisfaction. In addition to matchmaking, the platform also provides career consulting services to job seekers.

To Jacky Abitbol, who oversaw the deal for Cathay Innovation, Medwing is addressing two kinds of technological innovation his fund hunts for. For one, Medwing is driving “the future of work” by giving employees more autonomy and freedom. Terminal, which lets companies build out remote engineering teams overseas, is another startup in this category that has attracted financing from Cathay Innovation.

“Medwing is also bringing digital to a more traditional sector,” Abitbol told TechCrunch on the phone. That means streamlining the recruiting process by eliminating agencies or middlemen, saving time and costs for both workers and employers.

“What sounds very logical was not done this way until today,” the investor added.

Medwing operates a team of over 200 employees from over 30 countries, many of which have been hit hard by COVID-19. The startup is providing some of its services pro bono to fight the virus, placing professionals and volunteers in hospitals, nursing homes and private households that need support. Abitbol said the impact of the health crisis on the startup’s revenue remains “slight”, as only certain facilities are designated as coronavirus hospitals and demand will return to normal as the pandemic starts to ease.