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COVID: Beijing residents brace for new wave

William Yang Taipei
April 26, 2022

Residents of the Chinese capital rushed to stock up on food and supplies over the last two days, as dozens of new cases emerged in the city. Many fear a lockdown similar to what happened in Shanghai.

People wait for a throatswab at a COVID test site in a residential neighborhood of Beijing
Mass test has already started in BeijingImage: Andy Wong/AP/picture alliance

As the lockdown in Shanghai enters its fourth week, China's capital Beijing is also bracing for a potential surge of COVID-19 cases, as authorities roll out a plan to test 90% of the city's 21 million residents, according to the state-run media outlet Global Times.

Starting from Tuesday, authorities are expected to carry out three rounds of testing across 11 districts in Beijing.

Prior to the city-wide testing, mass-testing already began in Chaoyang district on Monday, where authorities have found 46 cases and more than a dozen residential buildings have been put under lockdown.

Residents told DW that testing sites were set up in each community and that staff from local health authorities had knocked on people's doors to ask them to get tested. "Some larger communities even have two testing sites and all tests were free," said a woman surnamed Lin, who lives in Chaoyang district.

Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of the Beijing municipal center for disease prevention and control, said during a press conference on Monday that initial epidemiological studies of the cases showed the transmission chain is basically clear, according to the Global Times.

However, authorities also warned that multiple risks for escalating the outbreak remain as population flow is expected to increase with the upcoming May Day holidays in China.

Run on groceries hits Beijing

Residents clear out supermarkets

While only 70 cases have been reported in Beijing since last Friday, news about mass testing in one of Beijing's biggest districts had pushed many residents to rush to supermarkets and stock up on food and other basic supplies.

On Sunday evening, videos of empty shelves in supermarkets in Beijing began to emerge while netizens began to express concerns about the city entering a sudden lockdown.

"After witnessing people in Shanghai struggling for basic supplies during the weeks-long lockdown, a lot of people living in Beijing were rushing to supermarkets and stocking up on basic supplies like rice, noodles, toilet papers," said Beijing resident Guo, who asked to be identified only by his last name due to concerns over government retribution.

As residents try to stockpile basic supplies, supermarkets and e-commerce platforms have promised to increase their inventories to ensure residents can have access to necessities while preventing commodity prices from surging amid an emerging outbreak.

The Global Times reported that local vendors said supplies were sufficient and that commodity prices remained stable as of Monday.

"While people have been snapping up supplies since Sunday, the situation of hoarding remains relatively rational," a local resident surnamed Gu told DW.

'Increasingly serious' grocery hoarding

But the situation was getting more tense, he explained. "Since Shanghai and Beijing both have over 20 million people, people are paying more attention to the lockdown in Shanghai, and that may have caused the scale of grocery-hoarding to be bigger than before.”

As Beijing takes precautionary steps to minimize the scale of the potential outbreak, local authorities say the current measure are effective.

Lu Hongzhou, head of Shenzhen's anti-epidemic expert team, told the Global Times that the large-scale PCR tests that Beijing has administered will "greatly help put the epidemic under control."

Other experts also note that authorities in Beijing seem to have learned some lessons from the experience in Shanghai. "The number of confirmed cases in Beijing this past weekend was similar to those seen in Shanghai on March 3-4," said Xi Chen, an associate professor of health policy and economics at the Yale School of Public Health.

"Shanghai waited 10 days to tighten public health measures and eventually implemented a lockdown on March 28. Beijing's announcement of three rounds of mass testing seems more responsive this time," he added.

Shanghai paralyzed by lockdown

Calls to prioritize smooth distribution

However, Chen also warns that as grocery-hoarding could intensify shortage and inequality in resource distribution, local authorities in Beijing should prioritize smooth delivery of fresh necessities in order to avoid the dire conditions that millions of people in Shanghai experienced after an "unprepared lockdown."

"Otherwise, repeating Shanghai's mistake in securing resources will waiver public determination and cooperation with the authorities," he told DW.

Unlike the widespread public discontent in Shanghai, some local residents in Beijing told DW that people in the city remain largely faithful to authorities' implementation of pandemic control measures, as they think temporary and targeted lockdowns imposed on some communities may be able to help contain the spread of the virus within just a few weeks.

"I think some people remain relatively calm about the possibility of lockdown, as they think authorities won't allow China's capital city to go into the same situation as what happened in Shanghai," said a woman surnamed Wang, who also asked to be identified only by her last name for safety reasons.

However, some netizens also expressed concerns about the potential impact of China's "dynamic zero-COVID strategies." "I hope experts can come up with other solutions because the sudden lockdowns and reopenings have greatly impacted people's everyday life," wrote one netizen on Weibo.

'People can't return to work'

"Currently, people can't return to work, factories can't easily return to production, students can't return to school and those without a stable source of income may face more dire situations."

Yale professor Chen told DW that the costs of China's zero-COVID strategy are rapidly accumulating, and restrictions following local outbreaks in Beijing could create more social and political tensions than outbreaks in other parts of China.

Hong Kong: Zero-COVID's effects on pollution

"Unlike many developed countries that have been helping communities, businesses, and families weather the pandemic through various stimulus packages and welfare programs, such efforts are still lacking in China,” he said. "Therefore, China has to try its best to eliminate the spread of the virus in the short term to avoid major disruption to the economy and society.”

Other experts say the more transmissible Omicron variant poses a difficult dilemma for governments that still want to uphold the zero-COVID strategy. "The strict measures only delay the spread of the virus, and if these governments still focus on counting the number of cases, they will have to continue the zero-COVID policy,” said Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University in the United States.

Chen thinks that how long China takes to mitigate transmissions along with how well China spends such time to better prepare for reopening will determine the overall costs of its decision to stick to the zero-COVID strategy.

"If China takes a long time to clear the COVID cases, or if China wastes this important time window, the overall costs could be substantially high,” he told DW.

Edited by: Leah Carter