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China is facing another coronavirus issue - travelers. Now that the lunar holiday is drawing to a close, hundreds of millions of people will need to head back to work, creating new challenges for Chinese health authorities. NPR's Emily Feng reports on how Beijing is bracing itself.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Mr. Xu, a construction supervisor, was relaxing in the city of Baoding, less than an hour by high-speed train from Beijing, when he got a call last week.
MR XU: (Through interpreter) I spent about half of the Lunar New Year at home. But they told me to come to Beijing that afternoon, and I left immediately.
FENG: Mr. Xu, who only gave his last name because he's not supposed to talk to foreign media, eventually corralled 150 construction workers all from Baoding together. They're now in the northern outskirts of Beijing, expanding the infamous Xiaotangshan facility. The building was built in 2003 on former farmland and used as a temporary treatment center for the victims of the SARS outbreak. With the current coronavirus numbers climbing across China, Beijing, one of the country's most populous metropolitan hubs, is preparing for another epidemic.
MR XU: (Through interpreter) It's going to have a thousand beds. It should take about seven to eight days. Our boss didn't even tell us how much we're being paid, but we'll figure that out later.
FENG: They're working on a tight deadline. China has done everything it can to stop the flow of people. It's quarantined cities home to more than 45 million. Distrustful villages have blocked roads to fend off the virus. The Lunar New Year holiday was even extended in Beijing by 10 days to stop returning migrants from flooding the city. But that holiday will end next week, and some workers are already coming back because their employers are forcing them to.
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AUTOMATED VOICE: (Speaking Chinese).
FENG: An automated announcement reminding people to wear face masks echoes in this Beijing train station. Normally, this would be one of the station's busiest times, but only an unlucky few disembarked today. Shi, a logistics worker from Shanxi province, is one of them.
SHI: (Through interpreter) I didn't want to come back. My supervisor pushed me to. At first, my Beijing landlord didn't want to let me live in my apartment until my boss intervened. It's not like I'm coming back from the outbreak quarantine zone.
FENG: Currently, every Beijing compound requires residents to note where they've last been and take a temperature check each time they enter. It's part of the array of voluntary safety measures cities across China have adopted to differing levels of intensity. The city of Dali wants all non-local residents isolated in hotels. Several cities in Zhejiang province mandate each household only send out one family member every two days to buy food. Shi, the logistics worker, thinks such measures are counterproductive.
SHI: (Through interpreter) This is unnecessary. If everyone just takes care of their own circumstances and washes their hands, that would be enough.
FENG: Essential staff working in services like transportation and utilities have already started working. Not officially included on this list are Beijing's thousands of scooter delivery men. For the last week, drivers like Zhai Xunlei have been feeding a city where many are too afraid to leave their houses.
ZHAI XUNLEI: (Through interpreter) We have to keep servicing households with elderly or infirmed people. If we all took this time off, people who cannot leave home would be helpless.
FENG: It's an attitude shared by Zhai's fellow Baoding native Mr. Xu back at the Xiaotangshan facility construction site.
MR XU: (Through interpreter) Someone has to build this treatment center.
FENG: A line of trucks continuously enters the Xiaotangshan compound, carrying concrete and construction equipment. White chalk marks with the new walls of a quarantine ward and a canteen will be. Mr. Xu hopes Beijing will never have to use this facility. In the meantime, he still sees it as his duty to build it.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.