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Air China staff take a group photo after putting smiley face stickers on their masks, worn as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, at a check-in area at Beijing Capital Airport on Feb. 24, 2020.GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

Convinced they have a deadly virus under control, Chinese authorities are making a new push to restart an economy stalled by nationwide lockdowns that have, for weeks, kept tens of millions of people under a kind of medical house arrest.

In major centres such as Beijing, larger traffic volumes brought back modest levels of congestion during the morning commute, after President Xi Jinping made an unprecedented direct address to leaders across the country to press for a resumption of economic activity in places with little risk of further COVID-19 outbreak.

And in manufacturing centres, local officials are making extraordinary efforts to ferry employees back to factories in what they are calling a “back to work tide.”

The act of balancing economic revival with the infectiousness of the virus was on display Monday when officials in Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the outbreak, said healthy non-residents could begin to leave – only to be slapped down by other leaders. Permission to leave was granted without “the consent of main leaders,” the city said in a directive, which also pledged to severely reprimand those responsible for the initial announcement.

The persistence of draconian measures in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province comes as the rapid spread of the virus in South Korea, Iran and Italy prompts authorities in those countries to take similar actions. In the South Korean city of Daegu, authorities have asked all 2.5 million residents to stay inside, even as officials in Seoul warned that it’s highly probable the virus will spread nationwide. Italy has sealed off some towns and villages, and Austria has temporarily halted train service from its neighbour to the south.

China took unprecedented steps to stop the epidemic spreading, but "not all other countries did the same, which is why we are seeing outbreaks in several other countries now,” said Raina MacIntyre, a doctor and epidemiologist who leads the biosecurity research program at Australia’s University of New South Wales.

But in China, where almost 2,600 people have died, local and provincial governments began the work of loosening restrictions that have choked off normal life.

On Sunday, in a video-conference address to 170,000 officials across the country, Mr. Xi called for low-risk areas to “fully restore production.”

On Monday, Chinese health commissioners reported a lack of new cases in 24 provincial-level regions, including Beijing and Shanghai. The southern province of Guangdong, home to a vast manufacturing industry, lowered its public health alert level.

With more than two weeks of declines in the number of new cases outside Hubei, “it is not unreasonable to loosen the restrictions, given such an unprecedented lockdown and evidence the epidemic is declining in China,” Dr. MacIntyre said.

In some of the country’s most economically important regions, companies and local officials have overseen a quiet but extraordinary effort to get workers from hometowns to factories stalled by a lack of people, dispatching special bullet trains, chartering aircraft and hiring buses and vans to the distant corners of China.

The country’s economy is heavily dependent on migrant workers – more than 288 million, the National Bureau of Statistics reported last year. For many, the Lunar New Year is one of the few times each year that they return to their hometowns and, often, to children being raised by grandparents.

But with the lockdown measures in place and a patchwork of restrictions on road travel, the effort to bring those workers back has required co-ordination between officials in coastal industrial districts, village leaders in remote parts of the country and transportation authorities in places in-between.

It’s complicated work. Workers must pass health screenings before being allowed onto planes. Buses can be at most half-full, to ensure space between people. Seats must be disinfected. Health officials must sign off on hygiene measures on the factory floor.

The scale of some efforts speaks to the desperation among companies that want to resume production. An electrical company in Ningbo, just south of Shanghai, brought workers from Heilongjiang, more than 2,600 kilometres away. Zhejiang province has provided almost $20-million in subsidies to bring back employees.

“We are facing huge pressure. We’ve got too many orders to produce and ship. Production on unfinished orders alone will take until June,” said Jin Zehui, a sales manager at Lidong Optics Manufacture Co. Ltd. in Wenzhou, which makes eyeglasses. Local industrial park administrators arranged for bus transport from Huaihua, a city more than 1,300 kilometres away. “The government covered all the costs,” Mr. Jin said.

But so far, only 10 have arrived. “To resume production, we need at least 200,” Mr. Jin said.

Aipai Group Co. Ltd. in Quanzhou, Fujian, has had better luck. Using planes and buses, it has brought back more than 200 people from Guizhou, Yunnan, Jiangxi and Hunan. The company has managed to get its production line into operation, but is still trying to get more of its people back.

“So far only 50 per cent of the production line labour force has come back. Many are still not here,” said Luo Jun, a human resources manager at Aipai.

With reporting by Alexandra Li

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