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Slowed by the Coronavirus, China Inc. Struggles to Reopen

Airbus is slowly restarting its assembly line in China. General Motors began limited production on Saturday. Toyota followed on Monday morning.

Fitfully and painfully — and with some worried prodding from Beijing — China is trying to reopen for business.

The world’s second-largest economy practically shut down three weeks ago as a viral outbreak sickened tens of thousands of people, unexpectedly lengthening a Chinese holiday. The freeze set off warnings that the global economy could be in jeopardy if the world’s pre-eminent manufacturing powerhouse stayed shut for long.

Now, as some factories rumble back into action, the monumental task of restarting China is becoming clear. China’s efforts to contain the virus are clashing with its 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.

Chinese leaders called this past week for more emphasis on reviving the economy. But many of the factories that have reopened are operating well below capacity, say companies and experts. Quarantines, blocked roads and checkpoints are stopping millions of workers from returning to their jobs. Supply lines have been 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 coronavirus, named COVID-19.

“The kind of fear and freeze that has taken hold in terms of economic activity is likely to persist,” said George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Center. “I don’t really see a good outcome.”

By Monday, more than 70,000 people had been infected by the coronavirus and over 1,700 had died worldwide, according to officials. New infections continue to be confirmed around the world, including an American who was identified with the disease in Malaysia on Sunday who had been on a cruise ship, raising concerns about another potential cluster outside mainland China.

Also on Sunday, Taiwan said that a 61-year-old man who had a history of poor health but not known for travel to China had died of the coronavirus, making him the fifth fatality outside the mainland.

Still, the pace of new cases officially confirmed in mainland China, the center of the outbreak, has slowed over the past three days.

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • What do you need to know? Start here.

    Updated Feb. 10, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.