China stutters back to work as virus deaths rise

BEIJING (AFP) – Millions of people in China returned to work yesterday after an extended holiday designed to slow the spread of a virus that has already killed more than 900 people.

At least 40,000 others have been infected by 2019-nCoV, which is believed to have emerged late last year in a market in Wuhan.

And although the World Health Organization (WHO) has said there are tentative signs the epidemic is stabilising, the agency’s chief warned there may more infections abroad in people who have never travelled to China.

The comments from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus came as a team of WHO experts departed for China, led by Bruce Aylward, a veteran of previous health emergencies.

In an attempt to contain the virus, cities in Hubei have been locked down and transport links countrywide were cut to stop the movement of hundreds of millions of people who usually visit family during the annual Lunar New Year holiday.

A masked man walks by a quiet shopping mall during lunch hour in Beijing. PHOTO: AP

Officially the Lunar New Year holiday was extended by only three days, but many cities and provinces pushed the deadline until yesterday.

The unprecedented measures have turned cities into ghost towns, with people staying inside.

But there were some signs yesterday of the country beginning to make a return to normality.

Roads in Beijing and Shanghai had significantly more traffic than in recent days and the southern city of Guangzhou said it resumed normal public transport yesterday.

But for those at work, it was not an easy balance to strike.

“Of course we’re worried,” said a 25-year-old man surnamed Li in a beauty salon in Beijing, which reopened Monday.

“When customers come in, we first take their temperature, then use disinfectant and ask them to wash their hands.”

However, tens of millions of people in Hubei province were not returning to work, as the province – the epicentre of the outbreak – remained under lockdown.

Even outside the quarantined province, many companies were limiting staff.

The Shanghai government suggested reducing large gatherings of people through staggered work schedules, suspending central air systems, avoiding group meals and keeping at least one metre away from work colleagues.

Online office communication tool DingTalk said in a Weibo post last week that nearly 200 million people were using the platform to work from home.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai said 60 per cent of its member companies were planning mandatory work-from-home policies.

State media reported that passenger numbers on the Beijing subway was down by about 50 per cent yesterday compared to a normal work day.

Large shopping malls in the capital were deserted.

A bank employee in Shanghai told AFP he was heading to work for a half-day, with other employees taking over in the afternoon.

The rest of the day, staff are instructed to work from home.

“It makes our work more difficult because we need to access the systems in our office,” he said.