Airbus is restarting its assembly line in China. General Motors began limited production over the weekend. Toyota followed suit on Monday. Slowly, but surely, and with an air of caution, the workers of China are heading back to the factories and offices to try and reopen for business.

Three weeks ago, during the auspicious Lunar New Year holidays, the world’s second largest economy practically shut down as the COVID-19 viral outbreak enfeebled tens of thousands of people; causing the government to extend the holiday in an attempt to keep more people from getting infected. The incident sent alarm bells ringing throughout the world as the global economy began to speculate the repercussions of the world’s pre-eminent manufacturing powerhouse being shut down.

As the factories of China rumble back to life, the daunting task of getting the nation’s economy back on track is becoming clear. Efforts to contain the virus are clashing with the nation’s push to get the country back to work, requiring the country’s leaders to strike a balance between keeping people safe and getting vital industries back on track; which is certainly no easy task.

While many workers are more than willing to answer the call to revive the economy, many factories are still operating well below capacity. A mix of quarantines, blocked roads, and checkpoints are stopping millions of workers from returning to their jobs. Supply lines have also been similarly severed.

Even to start up again, Chinese officials are requiring businesses to provide masks to workers, record their temperatures and track their movements to make sure they haven’t come into contact with the COVID-19 virus.

With the sheer number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 as well as fatalities both within and outside China, remaining cautious is a wise move. However, the pace of new cases officially confirmed in mainland China has slowed as of late, painting a slightly more optimistic picture.

With the factories of China revving up again, Airbus said that it began to reopen its narrow-body jet assembly operations last week in Tianjin but that it would only “gradually increase production, whilst implementing all required health and safety measures”. Airbus admitted that it was in dire need to reopen production as it could not meet global demand; which had increased due to the grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max jets.

Volkswagen was able to bring back enough employees to partially restart one of its 15 assembly plants in China last week and it plans to reopen the res gradually. G.M. shared similar sentiments while Hyundai said it was able to restart most of its Chinese production on 17 February.

Unfortunately, despite urging from the government, many companies still lack the manpower to restart production and return to their previous pace of productivity. The only exceptions being factories producing medical protective equipment.

Toyota said that its four assembly plants had operated on two work shifts a day before the virus spread. But it planned to reopen three of them on Monday and Tuesday with just one shift and leave closed for now the fourth and smallest, in the western Chinese city of Chengdu.

China’s consumer electronics components factories seem to be having more luck in resuming normal business. By 17 February, practically all had reopened except those in Wuhan, the centre of the epidemic, said Anna-Katrina Shedletsky, the chief executive of Instrumental, a remote quality monitoring system used by global brands to track and manage electronics manufacturing. However, she also added that these factories too were not functioning at full capacity.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, which has members across much of the industrial heartland in east-central China, said that the majority of its members had restarted at least some operations. But the bulk of these members are not at full production, mainly for lack of workers, said Ker Gibbs, the chamber’s president.

To put it into perspective, the reopening of businesses means trying to bring together much of China’s 700 million-strong work force after what had become a nearly three-week national holiday. At least slightly over half the country is being held under various kinds of lockdown.

Authorities have begun trying to reconnect the country. One such effort involves the agriculture ministry demanding the removal of road and highway blockages in rural areas that prevents the movement of livestock.

Even for those workers who are perfectly healthy and are willing to return to work, challenges are stopping them from doing so at every corner. In the city of Yiwu, a hub for small manufacturers in Zhenjiang province, workers returning to jobs have to submit themselves to a two-week quarantine. Only those registered with an official list of companies and work units will be allowed to enter the city, according to a statement from the government last week.

Factories are one thing, but it is the retails and service sectors that are feeling the brunt of the nation’s preventative measures. With both the government and consumers playing it safe, consumer spending at shops, restaurants, and service centres, often frequented by a growing affluent middle-class, have been devastated even when workers have returned to reopen business. Only time will tell if these businesses will ever reopen.


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