May 18, 2020 / 12:16 PM / 19 days ago

Outbreak at Chinese-owned factory shows challenges of easing India's lockdown

* Chinese smartphone maker OPPO re-suspends operations

* India seen a rapid rise in infections in recent days

* Lockdown rules relaxed in areas with fewer cases

By Devjyot Ghoshal and Sankalp Phartiyal

NEW DELHI, May 18 (Reuters) - Chinese smartphone maker OPPO suspended operations at a recently re-opened plant in India after workers tested positive for the coronavirus, an official said on Monday, underlining the challenges of easing a near two-month nationwide lockdown.

The factory, located on the outskirts of capital New Delhi, had received government permission to resume production, the company said on May 7, as part of a gradual relaxation of the shutdown that began on March 25.

OPPO had said it would resume manufacturing with 30% of its workforce, but a district official said that when the company tested its workers prior to production restarting, half a dozen people were positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“Reports came of about six positive cases,” Deep Chandra, senior official at the Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority, which oversees the area where the plant is based, told Reuters in brief comments.

Chandra said district authorities had instructed the company to test its workers again and that operations were currently suspended.

OPPO said in a statement late on Sunday that operations at the plant were suspended and that it would only allow employees with negative test results to resume work.

A spokeswoman did not answer questions about the company’s plans and when specifically operations had been suspended.

MIGRANT WORKERS

Experts, including those directly advising the government, say that coronavirus cases will rise in coming weeks as India’s lockdown is eased, and authorities have repeatedly told companies resuming operations to ensure that social distancing and other measures are taken to prevent infections.

India has seen a rapid rise in coronavirus infections in recent days, with confirmed cases at around 96,000 and more than 3,000 deaths, according to federal data.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government extended the nationwide lockdown to May 31, but relaxed rules in areas with lower numbers of cases and allowed state governments to issue their own guidelines on some matters.

With the restrictions eased, some traffic poured back onto the roads of India’s capital, and hairdressers, beauty parlours, stationary shops, and butchers were among the small businesses reopening.

But schools, malls and other public places will remain mostly closed, and large gatherings are still prohibited.

The southern state of Karnataka, home to technology hub Bengaluru, on Monday lifted some restrictions on the movement of trains, taxis and buses within the state.

However, transport facilities from outside the state will remain suspended, except in the case of essential services.

Compounding the challenges for the country, hundreds of millions of migrant workers have been stranded across India for weeks, unable to return home after authorities banned all transport services in late March.

After a series of road and rail accidents, where dozens of workers died, authorities are now scaling up efforts to help them home.

In the southern city of Chennai, construction worker M.D. Rustom queued along with hundreds of others for a bus and train trip back to the eastern state of Bihar, some 2,000 km away.

“We don’t have money to eat,” he said. “It has been over 50 days, we just want to go back now.” (Additional reporting by Derek Francis in Bengaluru and Sudarshan Varadhan in Chennai; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Alison Williams)

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