Every workday at Lenovo’s tablet and phone factory on the outskirts of Wuhan, arriving employees report to a supervisor for the first of at least four temperature checks. The results are fed into a data collection system designed by staff. Anyone above 37.3C (99.1F) is automatically flagged, triggering an investigation by an in-house “anti-virus task force.”
Daily routines at the facility, which reopened on March 28 after stopping for over two months because of the coronavirus pandemic that began in this central Chinese city, have been entirely reengineered to minimize the risk of infection. Before returning to the site, staff members had to be tested both for the virus and for antibodies that indicate past illness, and they had to wait for their results in isolation at a dedicated dormitory. Once cleared, they returned to work to find the capacity of meeting rooms built for six reduced to three and the formerly communal cafeteria tables partitioned off by vertical barriers covered in reminders to avoid conversation. Signs everywhere indicate when areas were last disinfected, and robots are deployed wherever possible to transport supplies, so as to reduce the number of people moving from place to place. Elevators, too, are an artifact of the Before Times; everyone now has to take the stairs, keeping their distance from others all the way.
Presiding over all these measures one Sunday in mid-April was Qi Yue, head of Wuhan operations for Beijing-based Lenovo Group Ltd. Qi, who’s 48, with closely cropped hair and a sturdy frame, had been visiting his hometown of Tianjin, in China’s north, when the government sealed off Wuhan from the rest of the country on Jan. 23. It had taken him until Feb. 9 to get home—and he was only able to make it by buying a train ticket to Changsha, farther down the line, and begging the crew to let him get offin Wuhan. His job was now to bring the factory slowly back to life while emphasizing vigilance. Compared with keeping the virus out of the plant, he said, “how much production we can deliver comes second.”
Qi is one of millions of people in Wuhan trying to figure out what economic and social life looks like after the worst pandemic in a century. In some respects they’re in a decent position. The outbreak in Hubei province peaked in mid-February, and according to official statistics there are now almost no new infections occurring (though other governments have cast doubt on China’s figures). But scientists warn that the novel coronavirus is stealthy and robust, and a resurgence is still possible until there’s a reliable vaccine. How to balance that risk against the need to reignite an industrial hub of more than 10 million people is a formidable dilemma—one governments around the world will soon be facing.
So far, Wuhan’s answer has been to create a version of normal that would appear utterly alien to people in London, Milan, or New York—at least for the moment. While daily routines have largely resumed, there remain significant restrictions on a huge range of activities, from funerals to hosting visitors at home. Bolstered by China’s powerful surveillance state, even the simplest interactions are mediated by a vast infrastructure of public and private monitoring intended to ensure that no infection goes undetected for more than a few hours.
But inasmuch as citizens can return to living as they did before January, it’s not clear, after what they’ve endured, that they really want to. Shopping malls and department stores are open again, but largely empty. The same is true of restaurants; people are ordering in instead. The subway is quiet, but autos are selling: If being stuck in traffic is annoying, at least it’s socially distanced.
Qi figures he’s probably on the right side of this economic rebalancing. Tablets are in high demand as schools around the world switch to remote learning, and companies contemplating a work-from-home future aren’t likely to skimp on technology budgets. Since restarting operations, he’s hired more than 1,000 workers, bringing the on-site total above 10,000, and production lines are running at full capacity.
He said he was painfully aware, however, of how quickly work would stop if even one employee contracted the virus. “In my meetings with my staff I always tell them, ‘No loosening up, no loosening up.’ We can’t allow any accidents.”
M ore than 80% of China’s almost 84,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and more than 95% of the roughly 4,600 confirmed deaths, have been in Hubei, of which Wuhan is the capital and largest city. Controlling the outbreak there, after a series of mistakes by President Xi Jinping’s government, which initially downplayed the risk of human-to-human transmission and failed to prevent widespread infection of medical personnel, required a herculean effort. More than 40,000 doctors and other medical staff were dispatched from other regions to reinforce existing facilities and operate field hospitals built in the space of 10 days, and car and electronics companies were pressed into making protective gear. People suspected of having the disease were required to move into dormitories and hotels repurposed as isolation facilities, and allowed to go home only after they’d been declared infection-free.
Hubei was the last region of China to resume daily life, with curbs on movement lifted progressively from late March until April 8, more than three months after the epidemic began. The government presented the moment as a decisive victory—part of a comprehensive effort to rewrite the narrative of the virus as a Communist Party triumph, in contrast to its catastrophic spread in Western democracies.
Late on the night of April 7, crowds began arriving at Wuchang station, one of three large railway hubs in Wuhan. The first outbound train in weeks, to Guangzhou, was scheduled to leave at 12:50 a.m., followed by a dense schedule of departures to many of China’s major cities. (Wuhan’s position at the junction of several major rail and road routes, along with its industrial heft, has invited frequent comparisons to Chicago.) Police in black uniforms and medical masks seemed to be everywhere. “Scan your code!” they shouted at travelers approaching the departure gates. The public-private “health code” system that China developed to manage Covid-19, hosted on the Alipay and WeChat apps but deeply linked with the government, assigns one of three viral risk statuses—red, yellow, or green—to every citizen. It’s a powerful tool with clear potential for abuse. A green QR code, which denotes a low risk of having the virus, is the general default, while coming into contact with an infected person can trigger a yellow code and a mandatory quarantine. Red is for a likely or confirmed case.
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