In November, the Beijing offices of Meituan Dianping, a Chinese ecommerce and food delivery business, were buzzing. Workers hunched over computers elbow-to-elbow and held impromptu standup meetings while a prototype snack robot, resembling a trash can with a touchscreen, wheeled between desks delivering cans of Coca-Cola.
Thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, the picture is very different today. Since the office reopened in February, workers enter in shifts staggered to minimize potential exposure. Infrared cameras and security staff check temperatures as they arrive, and their workspaces are decontaminated three times per day. Workers must wear masks at all times and are required to complete a daily health questionnaire. No more than six people are allowed in elevators; tape on the floor shows where to stand. Face-to-face meetings are discouraged, and people eat alone in the cafeteria using a cardboard “face shield,” to minimize risk when a face mask is removed.
The rules may be a harbinger for other countries battling to tame the virus and considering how and when to restart their economies. President Trump might be promising to get Americans back to work in weeks rather than months, but China’s recovery from the pandemic suggests that extreme measures may be needed for many more months. Until a vaccine has been developed or herd immunity emerges, returning to normal won’t be an option.
Three months after the novel coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China appears to have successfully dampened the rate of new infections—even allowing for some fudging in the official numbers. The government of Hubei, the province that is home to Wuhan and bore the brunt of the outbreak, said Tuesday it would remove travel restrictions, allowing residents, except those in Wuhan, to again move freely. In some places, like Shenzhen, the manufacturing hub in the south, and Hangzhou, a tech hot spot on the east coast, residents say restaurants and malls are starting to refill.
Regulations vary by province, but tough measures are in place for workers even in cities that were spared the worst of the virus. These include firm workplace rules, rigorous testing, travel restrictions, and comprehensive smartphone tracking.
“I think these [measures] are important,” says Michael Lin, a Stanford professor who has been collecting and sharing information on the novel coronavirus and Covid-19. He adds: “[I’m] not optimistic we can do it in the US.”
The US is just starting to see cases of Covid-19 spike, with hospitals, especially in New York, straining to keep pace. And while Trump has repeatedly said that he would like to see people back at work by Easter, a rush to end social isolation might help seed new infections. There’s no clear strategy for how to bring Americans back to work.
The Chinese government has pushed state-owned enterprises to get back to business. In some cases, evidence of industrial activity may have been manipulated to meet government targets. America’s shutdown comes at a bad moment for the Chinese economy, which relies heavily on exports. Demand within China has also fallen due to economic uncertainty and worry.
But there are signs of things picking up. Data released last week by the internet company Baidu showing anonymous movements of some users suggests that more than 90 percent of restaurants and 85 percent of malls in Beijing have now reopened. Data from TAC Index, a Hong Kong company that tracks the cargo industry, shows activity increasing in China in the first week of March, as activity dropped sharply in Europe.
Big industrial companies are touting progress. Foxconn, the manufacturing powerhouse that makes Apple’s iPhones among many other products, and which relies on a vast migrant workforce, said on Tuesday that it had resumed operations enough to meet seasonal demand. At the start of March, the company’s chairman, Young Liu, told investors that the plants were operating at 50 percent capacity.
But Foxconn has introduced some extreme measures to prevent the spread of the disease. Besides frequent temperature testing, the company says it has given more than 50,000 coronavirus tests to workers and administered 40,000 chest x-rays. A spokesperson for the company says anyone with an elevated temperature is immediately taken to a hospital, and those around them are closely watched.
The chairman of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, Ren Zhengfei, said Wednesday that more than 90 percent of his company’s 150,000 employees had returned to work. The company reduced operations by asking migrant workers not to return to factories in Shenzhen on February 10, after the Lunar New Year break. The company also redirected some effort towards making medical supplies, including masks. Ren said the production drop and the economic slowdown had forced the company to lower its financial forecast for this year.
Other big tech companies say they are taking similar precautions to Meituan Dianping. A spokesperson for Baidu said workers were being reintroduced in a “very gradual and scientific way.” The spokesperson could not say how many people were now working from the company’s main campus.
Anita Huang, chief marketing officer at Sinovation Ventures, a fund that backs AI-focused companies, says companies in Shenzhen and Guangzhou are largely back to normal, but those in Beijing are typically working in split shifts. Yet fears are widespread that the virus could return. “Even now, we all wear masks everywhere we go and in the office, and we wash our hands religiously,” Huang says.
Ubiquitous use of face masks is not the only difference between China and the US. China is using smartphones to monitor individuals’ travel and to enforce self-quarantine for those moving between big cities. Entering an office building means showing a colored QR code via either WeChat Pay or Alipay, two ubiquitous payment apps. A traveler from Shanghai to Beijing within the past 14 days, for instance, will be given a red code and denied access. After 14 days their code turns to green, allowing them in. Phones are linked to national ID cards, helping to enforce the control.
Meituan Dianping continued operating through the crisis in China. Office staff worked remotely during the lockdown, while the company’s delivery workers ferried food to customers. The company tried to minimize the risk to the couriers, with steps including frequent sanitization of their clothing and bikes, medical checks, and prohibiting gatherings. The company also covered medical insurance for riders and their families. A spokeswoman says about 55 percent of vendors were back in operation as of mid-February.
As China rebounds, the government and some businesses are making a show of helping other countries where sickness and death counts are rising, On March 12, Jack Ma, the cofounder of Alibaba, donated 500,000 Covid-19 testing kits and 1 million protective face masks to the US. Tencent, the company behind the ubiquitous WeChat app, announced a $100 million fund on March 24 for international efforts to combat Covid-19.
- It's time to do the things you keep putting off. Here's how
- What isolation could do to your mind (and body)
- Bored? Check out our video guide to extreme indoor activities
- Blood from Covid-19 survivors may point the way to a cure
- How is the virus spread? (And other Covid-19 FAQs, answered)
- Read all of our coronavirus coverage here