Beijing’s 22 million residents have been told to steel themselves for a resurgence of Covid-19, as officials scramble to lock down residential areas, erecting barricades that were dismantled not long ago.
The Chinese capital is set to revisit the sweeping travel and movement curbs seen earlier this year, after it reported 36 fresh infections in the 24 hours up to Monday morning.
Xinhua news agency reported that the city tracked down and isolated 44 infected people on Sunday.
Among them were 30 people who worked at the Xinfadi market, about 15 kilometers southwest of Tiananmen Square.
The new bout of infections there forced officials to shut the 1,680-hectare staple food wholesale center that feeds the entire city, despite concerns about a food supply crunch and soaring retail prices.
The emerging second wave ended the city’s 56-day run of zero cases since April, coming hot on the heels of the Two Sessions, or Lianghui. The Chinese parliament and top political advisory body wrapped up their delayed annual sessions at the Great Hall of the People at the end of last month.
A Peking University associate professor told Asia Times that the district government of Haidian, where the university is situated, had sent messages to residents who had recently visited the Xinfadi market telling them to get tested and that the fee would be reimbursed.
It is believed that the authorities are using mobile phone signal tracking, security camera surveillance, and big data crunching to speed up epidemiological investigations and contact tracing to identify those who bought food at the market or passed through its phalanx of stalls.
People were seen queuing up to be tested at one local stadium on Monday morning as paramedics in hazmat suits stood by. A smaller market in Haidian has also reported new cases.
Such compulsory yet free testing is also being rolled out in Beijing’s Xicheng district, where the Zhongnanhai, the imperial royal garden compound housing President Xi Jinping and other top Communist Party members is located.
Earlier this year when China was on the brink of a nationwide pandemic, Zhongnanhai, already off-limits to the masses, was locked down for the better part of February and March with no senior cadres allowed in.
It was said that Xi and other top leaders spent three weeks in seclusion inside Zhongnanhai.
Meanwhile, the glittering Financial Street, a central business district in Xicheng where the headquarters of China’s national banking and insurance watchdogs and some of the biggest state-owned lenders are located, is also flashing red on an epidemic information app launched by the State Council.
The square mile neighborhood, which is the nerve center of China’s financial market, is now a “medium-risk area,” meaning those who have visited office towers and shopping arcades there will need to be tested. No reason has been given for the categorization.
Why the Xinfadi market has become a problem area remains unclear but some prominent respiratory specialists, including those advising Beijing’s municipal health authority, have compared the fast-evolving outbreak with the emerging signs of a full-blown contagion in Wuhan back in late December and early January.
They have warned of the dangers, including more flare-ups, since the rash of new cases from a food market in Beijing bears alarming similarities with Wuhan’s first cluster of infections at a wet market where illegal game birds and other exotic wildlife were sold.
Yang Peng, a chief virologist with Beijing’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is quoted by China Central Television as saying that initial gene sequencing of the virus from infected people has revealed a new strain.
This was different from those found elsewhere across the nation, and “has its origins in Europe.” The finding is confirmed by Wu Zunyou, a top expert with the national CDC.
One theory is that the virus could have “hitched a ride” on seafood or meat imported from overseas and jumped on to those working at the Xinfadi market.
Some reports claim that the virus was found on a chopping board used to debone raw salmon at a seafood stall inside the market. Beijing ordered a temporary ban on the sale of salmon. However, experts say aquatic creatures do not host coronaviruses that typically infect mammals and birds.
The entire Xinfadi market, where close to 17.5 million tonnes of food was handled last year, has been shut indefinitely since Saturday. Residential quarters nearby have also been sealed off, with government employees delivering food and necessities to each household.
A deputy district chief of Fengtai, which has jurisdiction over the market, was sacked for negligence after the district put itself on a “wartime” footing to calibrate the response to any viral spillover from Xinfadi.
In April, Beijing’s bustling business and embassy district of Chaoyang was also labeled a high-risk area after a number of people were infected by a Chinese student who had returned from the United States.
Several provinces and municipalities across the rest of the nation, including Wuhan, have swiftly updated their travel advisories and require anyone who has traveled to Beijing to be quarantined.
The Beijing outbreak has spread to the neighboring northeastern province of Liaoning. The provincial health authority said two new cases confirmed on Sunday were people who had been in close contact with confirmed patients in Beijing.
Deputy Premier Sun Chunlan, who spent more than two months in Wuhan in February and March commanding the fight against Covid-19, said on Sunday that Beijing faced unprecedented risks of more widespread infections.
Prior to the outbreaks, Xinfadi and its neighborhood were seeing a number of streetside stalls sprouting up after Premier Li Keqiang encouraged jobless people and fresh graduates to become self-employed vendors after the jobs market was decimated by Covid-19.
Since then, almost all Chinese cities have stopped street patrols to disperse or fine unlicensed street hawkers, but an op-ed in the Beijing Daily said earlier this month that these vendors were not welcome in the capital.
It is unclear if the confirmed infections in Xinfadi include any street vendors there but the area’s lockdown and movement ban means stall operators spared by the virus will have to find other ways to make a living.