Beijing’s Covid outbreak sparks panic buying and lockdown fears

BEIJING — Families in Beijing rushed to stock up on food. Supermarkets stayed open late. Residents endured long lines for mandatory testing.

A new coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese capital has raised fears that Beijing could become, after Shanghai, the next Chinese megacity to put life on hold to contain the spread of the Omicron variant. The central government has relied heavily on the shutdowns despite their heavy social and economic costs, in pursuit of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s “zero Covid” strategy to stamp out infections.

On Monday morning, the National Health Commission said 47 cases of coronavirus had been discovered in Beijing since Friday. Three-fifths were in Chaoyang district, which has ordered all 3.5million residents to take three PCR tests over the next five days. Mass testing in response to early coronavirus cases has sometimes been a prelude in other cities to strict lockdowns, such as Shanghai’s four-week lockdown that drew widespread complaints from residents.

The outbreak in Beijing, the Communist Party’s seat of power and a crowded metropolis, has added significance for Xi, who had ordered the nation’s capital to remain virus-free. A prolonged lockdown there would add to political and economic pressures on his government.

“The Chaoyang District is now the main target for pandemic prevention,” Cai Qi, Beijing’s Communist Party secretary and protege of Mr. Xi, said in instructions quoted in the official Beijing Daily newspaper on Sunday. Mr Cai appeared determined to show that Beijing would not hesitate to take action to quell infections, which was criticized by some in Shanghai.

“Major pandemic measures cannot be left pending until the next day,” Cai added. “All high-risk sites and individuals involved in these cases must be checked on that day.”

The cases have been spreading in the community for a week, with multiple rounds of transmission, Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Sunday at a news conference.

Chaoyang is the most fashionable district in the city, with many luxury shopping malls and exorbitantly priced apartments. At Shin Kong Place, a mall with stores for brands like Chanel, Saint Laurent and Versace, long queues quickly formed at the high-priced supermarket as families rushed to stock up on food.

At a PCR testing booth on the street a block away, several dozen people were still queuing at 8 p.m. Sunday when staff members inside, dressed in white hazmat suits, announced that they were closing for the night. Closing the booth angered people standing in the dark waiting for tests, the results of which are usually returned within 12 hours. Many shouted at the staff, and several punched and kicked in the booth and tried to open the door and argue with the staff.

Chaoyang had not demanded that residents be tested on Sunday evening instead of Monday. But without new test results, residents are not allowed to take a train or flight to another city until a possible lockdown is imposed. When Beijing experienced a small outbreak in the summer of 2020, people flocked to train stations in a hurry to leave the city before they could be trapped there.

Beijing officials are hoping to avoid the experience of Shanghai, where a stifling lockdown this month weighed on China’s economic outlook and sparked public anger. Residents shared dark stories and criticism of the lockdown through online letters, a rap song and a dark video.

“We people in Shanghai believe that there have been many absurd, confusing and even cruel mandatory measures,” said Shanghai resident Ji Xiaolong, who has publicly criticized the government’s handling of the lockdown.

“At the start of the lockdown, 80 percent of people approved of it and government policies,” Ji said in a phone interview, noting difficulties in getting food and medical care. “Now I would estimate that less than 20% still support the government lockdown.”

Party leaders, however, seem determined to defend their goal of “zero Covid” – virtually no infections in general in Chinese society.

On Monday, Shanghai health authorities said the city had confirmed 19,455 cases the previous day, down 1,603 from the previous daily tally. The city has allowed residents of certain areas deemed safe to go outside, but leaders have warned that the broader restrictions must remain in place until infections are cleared.

“Shanghai is now at a crucial point in the zero offensive,” Sun Chunlan, China’s vice premier overseeing the lockdown, said last week. “The pandemic won’t wait for people, and don’t think about putting your feet up and breathing hard.”

Residents of Shanghai’s Pudong district shared photos over the weekend of new metal fences and cage-like barriers erected around apartment exits, part of the district’s drive to impose ‘hard’ isolation for locked buildings.

A highlight of the public backlash against the city’s policies was “Sounds of April,” a six-minute video that – set against melancholic music and black-and-white aerial footage of Shanghai – replays the voices of locals pleading for peace. help from the authorities. The video spread quickly and widely on Chinese social media last week before censors took it down.

It opens with Shanghai officials saying last month that a lockdown wouldn’t be necessary, then it would only last a few days.

Then comes a montage of voices: a trucker carrying food for the stricken town who says his cargo is in danger of rotting because no one has come to collect it; a son saying that his elderly and sick father was denied hospital care; a resident forced to quarantine in an unfinished hospital; a local official asking for understanding from a man whose requests for medical attention have gone unanswered.

The video quickly spread among Shanghai residents, reflecting widespread disdain for state media reporting on the crisis, Ji said.

“This video pulled the fig leaf out of those forces,” he said. “At this point in the crisis, people in Shanghai have started to pull themselves together.”

Some critics of Shanghai’s response are prominent members of the academic establishment who generally keep their opinions muted.

In a submission to the government circulated in Chinese media, Tang Xiaotian, a professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, warned that officials should avoid potentially illegal measures to confine people. Residents have been angered by measures such as barriers around apartments that could impede evacuation in the event of a fire, he noted.

Official propaganda on the Shanghai lockdown has ‘damaged the government’s credibility’, wrote Liu Xiaobing, a professor at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, who is a member of China’s national legislature, in an essay. shared on Chinese social media. It was also removed later. He did not respond to an email seeking comment.

“Policy enforcers only worry about the trouble they might cause themselves if they loosen controls,” Liu wrote. “They never worry about being called to account for damage caused by reckless restrictions.”

Li you contributed to the research.

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