China’s tough choices: Contain the virus or support the economy?

Fighting a war on two fronts is never easy. But that is the situation facing China’s government: It is trying to contain the country’s worst viral epidemic in 17 years, while also attempting to prevent its enormous economy from suffering a painful slowdown.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of workers want to return to their factories and offices – many of which stay shut following an extended Lunar New Year holiday – so that they can protect their livelihoods. But they remain stuck in far-away regions with transport links hobbled.

The coronavirus outbreak that has now killed more than 1,000 people over the past month continues to spread, infecting people not just in China but in many neighbouring countries too. And allowing workers to return could help it spread even faster.

“I just got updated by my company and we won’t go back to work until around March 1,” said Xin, a purchasing manager at a company that produces pipeline materials in Zhaoqing in China’s southern industrial powerhouse region. Like many others, he declined to give his full name for fear of reprisals.

“But what the staff are concerned and worried about now is salary,” he told Al Jazeera. “We will be paid (during the downtime), but it will only be at the very basic salary level.”

Recent media reports suggest that Chinese President Xi Jinping is concerned that overly restrictive measures to contain the virus, including curbs on road, rail and air travel, are hurting the world’s second-largest economy.

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