Holiday ends but workers stay home as China battles coronavirus

Workplaces, schools remain deserted in several cities as China works to contain new coronavirus.

Two persons walking by a usually-crowded but now empty city center mall area. [Shawn Yuan/Al Jazeera]
Chinese authorities have imposed movement restrictions in a number of cities [Shawn Yuan/Al Jazeera]

Beijing, China – After authorities extended the Lunar New Year holiday by 10 days in an attempt to contain the new coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 900 people and infected more than 40,000, most provinces in China ended the official holiday on Monday.

However, amid concerns of a potential uptick in cases as people return to work, the official ending of the holiday did not lead to the widespread reopening of businesses as the entire country has remained on high alert.

Most companies that can function with staff working remotely have told employees to work from home. Firms that require face time with staff have to obtain permission from local governments in order to reopen their businesses.

In the latest notice issued by the State Council, the government encouraged companies to summon their employees back to work in time-staggered batches, to avoid a bulk of people showing up at the same time.

Anxiously waiting

Angxi Zou, a lawyer who works at a law firm in Chengdu, said his firm had already extended the holiday four times, most recently on Monday, since the beginning of the outbreak.

“We were originally supposed to go back to work on January 31, but then it got pushed back to February 3, and then again until February 10,” Zou said. “And again, yesterday my company told me that the date had been further postponed until February 17.”

Zou is not alone. Across China, large companies such as Tencent, the parent company of WeChat, the biggest online messaging app in China, have extended their holiday until February 17 as well.

“I have been working from home for a week now, and it looks like I’m stuck here for at least another week,” Cecilia Young, an app developer at a Shenzhen-based tech company, said.

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For employees who have returned to office, minimising the risk of transmitting the virus has been a key priority: Staff are taking turns to go to the canteen, companies are avoiding holding meetings and masks are a must.

“We try our best to make sure this virus doesn’t get transmitted further, but sometimes you can’t help worrying: what if I caught the virus on the subway? Or what if I touched something with the virus on it and then touched my face?” said Yuzhu Zhao, a financial analyst who works at a securities company which called its employees back to the office on February 10.

However, the majority of the workforce in China is employed in informal sectors, such as construction. Many of those workers have struggled since their daiy income dried up and are anxiously waiting to return to work.

According to the notice issued by the State Council, only the “businesses essential to the welfare of the general population” are allowed to reopen. That includes construction work for public institutions, such as hospitals, medical equipment manufacturing factories, and express delivery. As such, the vast majority of the informal sectors and small businesses remain closed.

A night view of a plaza that is normally packed with mall-goers, but now due to the effective lockdown across China, most places are empty. [Shawn Yuan/Al Jazeera]
A night view of a plaza that is normally packed with mall-goers, but now due to the effective lockdown across China, most places are empty [Shawn Yuan/Al Jazeera]

‘At least a week’

Haifeng, a fire equipment manufacturing factory based in Xi’an, said it had submitted a proposal to reopen the business twice, but that both times it was rejected on the grounds that its staff provide “non-essential work in the light of the continuing coronavirus outbreak”.

“I have about 150 workers in this factory and they were supposed to come back to work a few days ago, but now because of the virus, we probably can’t go back to business until at least a week from now,” Yuyi Feng, the owner of the factory said.

Schools were also due to welcome back students in recent days, but the epidemic has forced most schools to postpone return dates. In most provinces, Offices of Education have issued notice that schools should delay the start of the new term until March at the earliest. And universities such as Beijing Foreign Studies University have even pushed the return date to May 1.

As the country tries to strike a balance between efforts to contain the outbreak and not substantially impeding the economy development, more megacities in China have introduced limits on people’s movement.

Chengdu, the biggest city in southwest China, announced it would increase movement restrictions and prohibit anyone who does not live in a specific neighbourhood from entering.

Public transport suspended

Chongqing, one of four municipalities directly under central government control, launched a city-wide concentration-like management, including distributing coupon-like stickers to their residents and allowing only one person per household to get out their houses once every other day to get groceries.

“Chongqing had already suspended public transport a few days ago,” Nick Liu, a Chongqing resident, said. “We saw the news of Wuhan being sealed off, but it’s still quite surreal to see Chongqing taking similar measures, too.” 

“This is getting serious, and I’m starting to think maybe the government is not disclosing enough information because these measures are too drastic for the numbers we know,” Liu added.

Chongqing and Chengdu are two of the most recent urban centres to join a list of approximately 80 which have put the entire city under effective lockdown.

In addition to restricting the movement of residents, some cities have closed themselves off to arrivals.

Shanghai, the biggest city in China, has asked people who do not have a job in Shanghai to cancel their trips to the city. Wuxi, a highly developed city next to Shanghai that hosts hundreds of thousands of workers from other provinces, announced yesterday that it would turn away any person who comes from any of the seven provinces with the highest number of infections, including Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Source: Al Jazeera