China's cities lock up residents to prevent spread of coronavirus

People wear face masks as they cycle in an empty street in the Yunxi county, Hunan province, near the border to Hubei province, on Jan 28, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - After one of Mr Tom Hong's neighbours was diagnosed with the deadly coronavirus, local officials in the southern Chinese city of Fuzhou where he lives chained the gates of his housing compound shut and barred all residents from leaving.

"I feel the epidemic is getting closer and closer to me," said 52-year-old Mr Hong, who has been stuck inside for five days and passes the time reading books and doing household chores. "Daily life has become a lot more inconvenient," he said, and his plant nursery will likely suffer because he and his employees can't get to work.

Mr Hong's confinement is part of the hodgepodge of rules restricting work and everyday activities that are now spreading out across China even as some factories and offices officially restart business. The authorities finally eased the rules on Mr Hong's compound on Tuesday (Feb 11), allowing each family to send one member outside to get groceries every two days.

With no unified national policy on how to stop the spread of the coronavirus outside the epicentre of Wuhan, officials are freelancing with their own, sometimes draconian, restrictions in a bid to avoid becoming the next locus of the disease.

Over 1,000 people have died from the respiratory illness that has led to a partial shutdown of the world's second-largest economy.

In the city of Zhumadian in China's central Henan province, the anti-virus lockdown means that only one person per family in the Yicheng district can leave the house every five days to get food.

Even that task is a challenge, after the district government ordered all shopping malls and supermarkets to close temporarily. Exceptions require approval from the authorities, according to a notice from the local government. The measures were imposed after Zhumadian reported more than 10 new cases a day for four days straight.


Across China, one of the most common restrictions has been to impose lockdowns on residential areas, with the provinces of Liaoning and Jiangxi, as well as major cities such as Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Ningbo, Chengdu and Suzhou restricting visitors and asking inhabitants to limit trips outside.

Local measures have sometimes led to pushback and even confusion between the different levels of government as to what is a necessary precaution and what is over the top.

In Yiwu, a city near Shanghai, local officials faced opposition after they tried to tell residents to send a family representative outside once every four days only.

On Sunday, provincial authorities in Zhejiang overseeing the city told lower levels of government to strike a balance between containing the virus' spread and allowing necessary daily activities, according to a written notice seen by Bloomberg and confirmed as genuine by a person familiar with the matter.

The same day, Yiwu eased the restrictions by allowing more trips and making exceptions for urgent tasks. City officials also urged markets and stores to reopen.

The Securities Times reported on the Zhejiang notice on Sunday, though the article appeared to be deleted from its social-media account on Tuesday.


A man works on the plastic cover of a CT scanner in a factory in Qingdao in east China's Shandong province, on Feb 9, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

For companies, Monday marked an official return to work on the mainland following the extended Chinese New Year holiday. However, many are now getting tied up in varying requirements from local governments for permission to actually send workers back to offices and production lines.

A common demand is that companies provide sufficient masks, hand sanitiser and protective equipment for employees, and quarantine anyone who has been away for two weeks. But with supplies of masks so short that doctors and nurses on the front line in Hubei complain of shortages, that order can be impossible to obey.

An LED car lighting factory in Zhenjiang, a city in Jiangsu province, is still shut because it can't provide five masks per worker along with disinfectant and protective suits, according to Ms Melissa Shu, the company's export manager. Before the outbreak, the firm planned to resume production on Feb 1.

Mr Zhou Xinqi, the owner of Cixi Jinshengda Bearing Co in Zhejiang, planned to have staff back to work last Thursday but most of his 300 workers have not returned due to travel restrictions. When they do come back, they will have to be quarantined and Mr Zhou does not expect his factory to recommence production until Feb 25 at the earliest.

Foxconn Technology Group resumed some production on Monday at its main iPhone-making site in Zhengzhou, according to local officials, though it was unclear how many workers returned.

Beijing on Tuesday issued a warning against preventing firms from restarting business.

"These measures are not based on the science of epidemic prevention, and do not follow the central government's policy," Mr Cong Liang, secretary-general of the nation's top economic planner, told reporters. "This should be stopped from now. We will regulate those improper measures that restrict firms from resuming work."

Chinese President Xi Jinping has also highlighted the risk of going too far, telling local officials on Feb 3 that some efforts to contain the virus threatened the economy, Reuters reported on Tuesday, citing people familiar with his comments. Mr Xi said some measures have not been practical and spread fear among the public, Reuters said.

"It's hard to strike a balance between containing the virus and letting businesses resume work," said Mr Larry Hu, an economist at Macquarie Securities. "This is simply a trade-off."

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