An immigration officer checks a display showing the body temperatures of passengers passing through a channel at Guangzhou’s airport. Photo: Xinhua

China’s top-tier cities are bracing for an influx of migrant workers and have raced against each other to impose more stringent rules to stave off the epidemic that may infect more with the flow of people.

Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have all gone into a semi-lockdown with temperature screening checkpoints being set up along their city limits and in highway toll plazas, on top of an indiscriminate 14-day quarantine order for all who have entered these cities.

That said, cadres realize that their policymaking has to navigate between rival objectives. While they beseech people to continue to remain at home and seal off residential quarters to at least put the contagion into remission, in the meantime, they feel the need to lift the travel and entry ban on some young workers and jobseekers as manufacturers, retailers and caterers have to resume business as the already slackening economy is displaying symptoms of a looming recession.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, wearing a mask, has his palm temperature checked as he inspects a community service center in Beijing on Monday. Photo: Xinhua

One example is the consultancy Oxford Economics, which predicts the Chinese economy will grow less than 4% in the first quarter of 2020 from a year earlier.

For the full year, the forecast is average growth of 5.6%. For both figures, the previous, pre-virus forecast was 6%.

Therefore, local governments across the nation are issuing conflicting orders this week to step up health checks and keep out non-locals and also to approve applications from factories to start production.

The backdrop is that the State Council’s note to prolong the Lunar New Year break, urged by top pathologists, lapsed on February 10.

A temperature screening booth inside the concourse of a metro station in Guangzhou. Photo: Handout
Staff in protective gear sterilize a waiting hall inside Shanghai’s Hongqiao railway station. Photo: China News Service
Few pedestrians are seen in Guangzhou’s Pearl River New Town, the city’s new CBD. Officials in major cities are feeling the pressure to fire up the local economy while they fight the ongoing epidemic. Photo: Xinhua

This also explains the inconsistent messages being sent out. While state health officials warn of a new test facing big cities, officials in Guangdong and Zhejiang, which for weeks recorded the highest number of infections outside the epicenter of Wuhan and the rest of Hubei, say the spread of the virus in their provinces may have already “peaked out” and that more manufacturers and plants should be allowed to start operations to fire up the economy.

When cadres take time to formulate ways to juggle the tasks of disease control and economic development, hordes of people have packed train stations in big cities as many are either told by employers to return to work or fear that their company may not be able to survive the economic complications of the still-raging epidemic.

Caution vs optimism

Feng Kui, an expert with the National Development and Reform Commission’s Center for City Studies, told the China Business News that with China’s far-reaching high-speed rail network and more air routes linking major urban centers compared with the limited connectivity back in 2003, the year SARS broke out, the population on the go on a daily basis today could be six times the total 17 years ago.

One example is that despite station shutdowns and departure cancelations, about 1.6 million people traveled via rail across the country on Sunday, according to China Railway Corp. Feng has prodded officials in the four first-tier cities and their neighboring conurbations not to lower their vigilance as big crowds could bring about a new surge in infections.

But some health experts argue otherwise. Hou Jinlin, a chief epidemiologist with the Guangzhou-based Southern Medical University, told Guangdong’s provincial party mouthpiece the Southern Daily that it had been more than 14 days – a typical probation period – since Wuhan shut stations and airport to stop the infected from fleeing on January 23 and major cities like Guangzhou had not seen a big spike in new cases and that the worst-case scenario in his study had not panned out.

Hou’s optimism has been echoed by a new paper by Zhong Nanshan, a veteran pulmonologist also based in Guangzhou, who is held in high esteem across the nation for his leading role in fighting SARS and having the integrity to speak the truth back in 2003.

Zhong’s team noted in the paper on the clinical characteristics of the coronavirus, published on Sunday in the US medical journal medRxiv, that the fatality rate of the ongoing pandemic in Guangdong, which has jurisdiction over the two economic dynamos of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, was 0.88%, significantly lower than the lethality of SARS.

Zhong is also the lead scientist advising the National Health Commission in battling the virus.

Veteran epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan. Photo: Xinhua
An excerpt of Zhong’s paper.

The entire province of Guangdong with a population of more than 100 million only reported 26 new cases on Monday, compared with a daily tally of 114 a week ago on February 3, sustaining a drop since the beginning of the month.

Guangzhou’s municipal government has announced the resumption of full metro services on the city’s 14 lines starting from the next week.

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