Am I scared? Who isnt? said Zhang Zhengguo, 81, here working a vegetable plot in the Fengdu Industrial Zone on Feb. 8 and wearing a mask amid fears of contagion from the Wuhan coronavirus.
Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail
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 mahjong 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 a virus that has now killed 812, more people than SARS, poses a mortal threat.
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 worlds second-largest economy. But in a trip through rural and industrial areas of Chongqing, a city-state that is among the countrys 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 lynchpin of global manufacturing and trade are unlikely to be resolved soon.
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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, that shows 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 isnt? 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. Zhangs life spans the entirety of Communist China. Ive been through a lot, but Ive 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 imperative 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 people should resume its 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.
Though the number of cases and deaths continues to rise, the rate of increase has slowed after peaking Feb. 5. Epidemiologists say its difficult to assess the risk of provoking a newly-accelerated outbreak by ordering people back on the job in crowded factories and offices.
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If the increase rate does bump higher again, then well know that were 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. This is unprecedented and its having an extraordinary impact on peoples lives and the economy, particularly those people who dont have the ability to get around and feed themselves.
But he had no criticism for the Chinese response. This is a catastrophe, he said. Its 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 whats best for the country as a whole and for the world.
This, a local Communist Party official told The Globe, is no mere medical response. Its combat.
We see it as a war to block the epidemic, said Mr. Cheng, who works in the Fengdu transportation department, and gave only his surname. He was posted at a new checkstop to the citys industrial zone, installed Friday, where workers sprayed some cars with disinfectant and registered the temperature, travel history and identification of each person.
By taking all these methods, weve achieved one goal: to minimize the flow of people, including the flow of vehicles, Mr. Cheng said.
Am I scared? he added. 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.
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The strategic outlines of that effort have been printed onto a sign posted at the exit of the G69 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 Leader Liu, whose name and mobile phone number are posted with the rules. He declined to provide his first name. Non-residents who can prove exceptional circumstances were allowed to enter for only 20 minutes.
Its true that the regulations are becoming increasingly strict, and inspections are becoming more and more intense, Mr. Liu said. 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. Its not yet safe to go back to on the job, said a construction worker in Zhujiagou. In Fengdu, factory workers said there no chance local manufacturing operations would resume Monday. Perhaps in March, one woman said.
All we can do now is guard against the virus, said Mr. Zhang, the elderly farmer.
He recalled the massive dislocations here during the great floods of 1998, when severe rain pushed the Yangtze River past its banks, killing thousands. Then, people on the shores of the river suffered greatly, and many local houses were destroyed overnight, he said.
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But 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 reporting by Alexandra Li