In the green hills overlooking the Yangtze River, 50 kilometres outside the boundary to virus-stricken Hubei province, more than a dozen family members milled about their home on Saturday. On one side of the two-storey concrete house, a woman cooked over a wood fire. On the other, men tossed cash onto a mah-jong table, as three generations watched and chatted.
They had little else to do. There was little else they could do as authorities use increasingly strict measures to thicken a virtual wall that now extends far from Hubei, terrified of a virus that has now killed 908 – more people than SARS.
The new measures form even more formidable barriers to movement in China, just as central authorities call workers back to factories and offices for Monday, in hopes of restarting the world’s second-largest economy. But in a trip through rural and industrial areas of Chongqing, a city-state that is among the country’s top economic powerhouses, The Globe and Mail found little evidence of a return to normal – and many signs of the opposite, an indication that the massive disruptions to a linchpin of global manufacturing and trade are unlikely to be resolved soon.
In Zhujiagou, one woman complained about being unable to go to the market to buy food. A man showed a video on his phone, taken Saturday, of authorities installing metal fences across a nearby street.
A few dozen kilometres to the east, in the Shizhu district adjacent to Hubei, local officials at a health stop checked forehead temperatures and blocked entry to anyone without proof of local residence. A sign showed local rules mandating “eight-layer control” of every path for human movement, from freeways to courtyard walkways. Authorities have even limited local gasoline availability as a way to keep people off roads.
“Am I scared? Who isn’t?” said Zhang Zhengguo, 81, who wore a surgical mask as he pulled a hoe between rows of garlic and radishes in the nearby Fengdu Industrial Zone. Mr. Zhang’s life spans the entirety of Communist China. “I’ve been through a lot, but I’ve never seen a disaster like this, where all of Chinese people are intimately involved,” he said. This, he added, “is the first time I have seen so many and such strong restrictions.”
In Beijing, the necessity to get back to business is growing more insistent, as officials survey an economy that has ground to a standstill, threatening the well-being of people and businesses alike. Chinese authorities have declared Monday the return to work, commanding provincial-level authorities to arrange transportation for workers and clear obstacles to the movement of vital goods, including raw materials. On Sunday, vice-minister of commerce Wang Bingnan cited Chinese president Xi Jinping, saying manufacturing, production and daily life should resume their normal order.
“There is an urgency and an imperative to restoring business operations,” he said.
But, he noted as one example, only 35 per cent of shopping malls have reopened following the Lunar New Year holiday. “Currently, our priority is still in reining in the epidemic,” he said. On Sunday, Chinese rail booking sites showed tickets still available for travel from many Chinese centres into the manufacturing hubs of Dongguan, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, an indication that many workers remain in their hometowns. On the outskirts of Beijing, local authorities told people if they left home to work, they could not return without a 14-day quarantine. In Shanghai, rental managers called companies to urge them not to bring employees back to the office.
Although the number of cases and deaths continues to rise, the rate of increase has slowed after peaking Wednesday. Epidemiologists say it’s difficult to assess the risk of provoking a newly accelerated outbreak by ordering people back on the job.
If the increase rate does bump higher again, “then we’ll know that we’re in trouble and that we have to back off again. And I trust that the government will do that,” said Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who has worked with the Chinese government on the Wuhan virus response.
He had no criticism for the Chinese response. ”This is a catastrophe,” he said. “It’s sort of like the Titanic going down. You only have a certain number of lifeboats. You have to make some kind of a decision based on what’s best for the country as a whole – and for the world.”
At a check-stop in Fengdu’s industrial zone, installed Friday, workers sprayed some cars with disinfectant and registered the temperature, travel history and identification of each person.
A local transportation department official, who did not provide his full name, described a “war” against the epidemic.
“Am I scared?” he said. “How should I answer this question? I think our China is powerful, just as powerful as our Communist Party. We will defeat this epidemic and win the battle.”
The strategic outlines of that effort have been printed onto a sign posted at the exit of a freeway into Shizhu, a district of 375,000. Anyone without a mask, healthy or not, will be treated as suspicious for infection, it warns. All stores must close, save those selling wheat, oil eggs, vegetables and milk. Urban residents can leave homes once every two days, or for medical necessities, such as childbirth. Rural residents can leave home only once every three days.
Each household can possess only one pass to leave home, said an official whose name and mobile phone number are posted with the rules. Non-residents who can prove exceptional circumstances were allowed to enter for only 20 minutes.
Regulations are becoming increasingly strict, and inspections are becoming more and more intense, said the official, who did not provide his full name. “We won’t loosen things unless we are ordered by government.”
In that environment, some said they had no intention of going back into close contact with others. It’s not yet safe to go back to on the job, said a construction worker in Zhujiagou. In Fengdu, factory workers said there was no chance local manufacturing operations would resume Monday. Perhaps in March, one woman said.
Mr. Zhang, the elderly farmer, recalled the massive dislocations here during the great floods of 1998, when severe rain pushed the Yangtze River past its banks, killing thousands. Then, “we knew how to fight against it. This time, the virus is a national disaster,” he said. In the background, loudspeakers broadcast government rules demanding the registration of outsiders and regular home sterilization.
“Everyone,” Mr. Zhang said, “is scared about the possibility of infection.”
With reports from Alexandra Li