- Some people are struggling to get back to their workplaces while those who can face quarantine and financial uncertainties
- Businesses are also feeling the squeeze as they try to absorb the cost of extra protective equipment and measures.
For Chen Wenjin, the trip back to Hubei province in central China for the Lunar New Year holiday was not meant to be a one-way journey.
Now, the 28-year-old Guangzhou-based IT worker, has been stuck in his parents' home in Xiaogan for more than 20 days because of the lockdown measures imposed by the government to stop the deadly coronavirus from spreading.
Xiaogan, which neighbours Wuhan, has been under lockdown as part of unprecedented efforts to stop the spread of a coronavirus that causes a disease now known as Covid-19.
The disease has infected more than 80,000 people, killing over 2,700.
Chen is one of 1.7 million people from Hubei " and 10 million around the country " who were expected to return to work in Guangdong province after the holiday.
While he can technically work from his parents' home in Xiaogan, he worries that he will eventually lose his job if he cannot get back to Guangzhou soon.
But the imposition of "wartime" emergency measures " including the suspension of public transport and security checkpoints on major roads " mean that people like Chen simply cannot leave Xiaogan even if they want to.
"The only way to go is to drive but then you will need a certificate issued by the local authorities in Xiaogan to show that you are in good health," Chen said. "That is simply out of the question now."
"I have no idea what may happen to me now. (If I lose my job), I will default on my mortgage. Would I have to go into self-imposed quarantine if I return to Guangzhou? Am I responsible for my own expenses when I am in quarantine?
"I still don't know when and how I can go back to Guangzhou."
Guangdong, one of China's most important economic powerhouses and home to hundreds of thousands of key exporters, lowered its emergency response level from level one to two on Monday.
In a series of press conferences, officials made clear that the province wanted to quicken the return of workers but at the same time prevent the influx of the crucial workforce would lead to further an outbreak of the disease in the province.
Chen Zhusheng, a deputy director of Guangdong's health commission, said the government would soon issue guidelines to businesses directing them on how to coordinate the return of hundreds of thousands of employees from other provinces.
"What we need to do is to differentiate the levels of risks (of different areas)," Chen said. "Areas with lower risks should move faster in lifting the restrictions and return to normal production but then areas of medium and higher risks will need to balance carefully controlling the disease and returning to normal production at the same time.
"Enterprises with the necessary conditions can do more like assign the workers to different shifts and work in a separate environment so to better avoid the risk of crossinfection.
Feng Huiqiang, a senior official from provincial health commission of Guangdong, said: "We want to tell people from high-risk areas that they should not rush to return to Guangdong. If they must come back, then they should first stay under quarantine for 14 days. All conferences and sporting activities should be cancelled to prevent people from gathering.
"Everyone should follow the guidelines " apart from going to work, don't go out, don't gather, don't dine together, don't eat wild animals. And don't be over optimistic."
Lu Jiahai, a professor who studies epidemiology at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said he was cautiously optimistic that Guangdong would pass the hurdle, pointing out that the province had witnessed a steady decrease of new cases in recent days.
"But we must pay attention too for any rebound (in cases)," he said.
Lu said that enforcing workplace hygiene would be of critical importance especially in dealing with such a huge workforce.
"If everyone wears a mask, washes their hands frequently, eats separately and keeps the workplace in good sanitised condition, then the chance of (more) infections will be lower," he said.
"(I believe) victory (over the coronavirus) is in sight. We just need to hang on for a little longer."
Fion Liang, director of sales and marketing at the Garden Hotel in Guangzhou, said the hotel would ensure all staff who returned to work were properly equipped with masks and protective clothing if needed.
Although the city's emergency response level had been lowered, Liang said the hotel had kept to its quarantine standards to keep the virus away.
However, Chris Chan King-chi, an associate professor on labour issues at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the return of 10 million workers in the current climate could pose a huge challenge to the province's health system if infections spread.
"This is inevitably going to be a big challenge to Guangdong's health system if a mass outbreak happens," he said.
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Besides public health, welfare support for the workers would also be a major test for the government, given that the returned workers would not be paid if they were not allowed to go back to work for health or safety control reasons.
"Aid such as rent subsidies provided by the government have not reached the hands of the workers … and many small businesses will struggle just to pay wages," he said.
"For the poorest and vulnerable people, the government will need to introduce some (support) measures (if the disease spreads) in order to maintain social stability."
Geoffrey Crothall, communications director at the China Labour Bulletin, a labour NGO based in Hong Kong, said the government would need to look ahead and be prepared to introduce measures to ease the financial burden of enterprises such as deferring social insurance payments.
He pointed out that many small businesses would be hard pressed to absorb the extra costs of providing adequate protective equipment for their workers or paying the quarantine expenses of their staff.
"The government's ability to cope (the return of the workers) will depend to a large extent on how inclusive it is in its decision-making. (It) should ensure all parties like business federations and trade unions are involved rather than just issuing arbitrary policies that are subject to change at any minute," he said.
"Government officials should realise that if they make the wrong decisions, the consequences could be dire, worker protests and the outbreak of virus are inevitable."
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