Via Financial Times

Li Kun liberated his family from Hubei province on Wednesday but it was a close-run thing. 

The marketing manager lives and works in Hangzhou, a technology hub near Shanghai, and had returned to his hometown of Huanggang city in January for Chinese New Year when coronavirus struck. Mr Li, his wife and daughter suddenly found themselves caught in what was then perhaps the biggest mass quarantine in human history, with almost all of Hubei’s 60m residents in lockdown. 

As the Chinese epidemic became a global pandemic over recent weeks, entire countries would follow Hubei’s lead, including Italy and India.

Mr Li’s nightmare finally ended on Tuesday, when the Hubei Health Commission announced it would relax travel restrictions imposed two months ago for all areas outside the provincial capital, Wuhan, which will be liberated on April 8.

“I decided to go back to Hangzhou the moment I heard the traffic ban had been lifted,” he told the Financial Times. “My wife works in Hangzhou too and our employers had been pressing us to return as soon as possible.” 

The Li family’s 10-hour drive back to Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, was tense. At one checkpoint in Hubei, Mr Li had to produce proof that he was employed in Hangzhou and his employer had reopened for business, as well as a letter from officials in the city confirming that he would be allowed back home. 

When Mr Li entered Zhejiang province, his mobile phone started to ring. Zhejiang’s telecom network had detected his Hubei-registered mobile and alerted provincial, municipal and district police, all of whom rang to check on his travel plans. “There is no privacy, but we are used to that,” he said. 

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TOPSHOT - This photo taken on March 23, 2020 shows employees eating during lunch break at an auto plant of Dongfeng Honda in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. - People in central China, where the COVID-19 coronavirus was first detected, are now allowed to go back to work and public transport has restarted, as some normality slowly returns after a two-month lockdown. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Workers at a Dongfeng Honda factory in Wuhan adhere to social distancing rules during a break © AFP/Getty

Other Hubei residents are relieved the travel ban has been lifted, but are happy to stay put for now. Wang Haoze, now at home in Xiangyang, Hubei’s second-largest city, attends university in Beijing. But his college is still shut so he is hanging out at home, taking online classes and preparing for examinations for the postgraduate courses to which he is applying. 

“For us, the relaxation gives us a sense that we can finally move freely,” said Mr Wang, who nevertheless frets that people might let down their guards and give rise to a “second wave” of infections. “I am still worried because, after all, the risk has not been completely removed. A few passers-by have stopped wearing masks.” 

As in the US, where governors and mayors have issued stay-at-home orders — some stricter than others — Hubei’s seemingly uniform lockdown was actually a patchwork that varied by city. Municipal governments are also taking different approaches to the relaxation. 

In terms of economic output, Xianning is one of Hubei’s 10 largest cities and has recovered quickly from the epidemic. It has been more than a month since local authorities there reported a new infection. 

Yet the city of 3m is relaxing its travel ban cautiously, even though about 500,000 of its residents are migrant workers eager to leave. 

Anyone wanting to leave the city has to take a test proving they are coronavirus-free. The government will pay half the test cost of Rmb150 ($21), but Xianning Central Hospital can only conduct 300 a day. Bookings there and at other hospitals are now difficult to get, according to hospital staff. 

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“I don’t know how long I need to wait before I can get a test,” one Xianning resident complained on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, adding that he had all the certificates required to allow him to return to work in the southern city of Guangzhou. 

Other cities across Hubei have been allowing people to come and go for days, if not weeks. 

Dong Gen works for an insurance company in Wuhan located near the seafood market which some of the city’s first coronavirus cases were linked to. He was visiting in-laws in Xiangyang when the province-wide lockdown was initiated.

“When I arrived in Xiangyang I was scared and worried,” he said. “I was afraid I was carrying the virus asymptomatically.” 

Mr Dong was able to drive back to his hometown of Huangshi on Saturday, five days before provincial travel restrictions were partially lifted. This was on the strength of a “green code” on an app on his mobile phone, signifying that he was healthy. One of his friends travelled from Xiangyang to Huangshi even earlier, on March 16. 

Yu Xiang, a 22-year-old construction worker, was able to travel from Yichang, near the Three Gorges Dam in western Hubei, to Wuhan on Monday. “My company has been urging me to come back to work for a few weeks now,” he said. “I didn’t want to risk it but I’ve got bills to pay.” 

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Mr Yu and 23 other passengers in the bus had their temperatures checked, photos taken and thumb prints scanned before boarding. He said bus services between Yichang and Wuhan had been available for at least two weeks. “I’m not sure the relaxation of the travel ban makes a big difference,” he added. “Many people have been able to leave Yichang if they have a green code and their paperwork in order.” 

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Now safely back in Hangzhou, Mr Li and his wife are glad to be resuming their normal lives. Their daughter is attending her kindergarten again. But their neighbours are wary. 

“There is still some hostility towards people from Hubei,” Mr Li said. “My neighbours keep their distance as they suspect I might be a virus carrier. I don’t blame them.” 

Sun Yu and Xinning Liu in Beijing, Xueqiao Wang in Shanghai, Qianer Liu in Shenzhen, Robin Yu and Selena Li in Hong Kong and Tom Mitchell in Singapore