Thinned-out crowds are seen at a Beijing subway station as the city faces another surge in local infections. Photo: WeChat

A year after China reported clusters of Covid-19, Beijing is now back on its “wartime footing” for at least a third time in 12 extraordinary months. 

A dozen locally transmitted cases have found their way back to the Chinese capital, after arguably the most scrupulous anti-virus testing and isolation regimes in the country failed to snuff out new outbreaks in the past week. 

Five new local infections logged on Saturday were close contacts of a previous case.

These have shocked local cadres into changing their tack, which now includes district-wide testing blitzes, strict community lockdowns as well as travel bans to stop residents from hotspots leaving their neighborhoods. At least one more case was confirmed on Monday morning. 

Beijing’s total caseload of 972 as of Monday is higher than Taiwan’s. Across mainland Chinese cities, it is now ranked only after Wuhan, the initial ground zero of the contagion, and Shanghai. 

As the Covid specter returns to haunt, one indication of the panic felt by Beijing’s 21 million-odd residents is that daily passengers on the city’s 689km subway system dropped from 10.24 million on Christmas Eve to 4.26 million on Sunday, according to figures from the operator.

The city’s papers have hailed the deep drop as proof of people’s compliance as they heed the government’s appeal to stay at home, but it remains to be seen if the usual pushing and shoving will return to the Beijing subway on a working day. 

The usual crowd is gone on Beijing’s subway on Sunday. The city found five local new infections a day earlier. Photo: Asia Times
A cleaner disinfects a turnstile at a subway station in Beijing. Photo: WeChat

The ongoing outbreak, if unchecked, may push the city’s total into four digits. This may still be considered negligible in other Covid-ravaged cities across Asia such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo.

Still, officials with Beijing’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention quoted the city’s party chief Cai Qi, also a member of the Communist Party’s top decision-making Politburo, as saying that the central leadership had ordered the city to turn the tide and achieve zero new infections within two weeks, the typical incubation period. 

Beijing’s CDC has admitted that given the average transmission rate of 1.2 to 2 as seen in its previous epidemiological investigations – the virus may jump from one latent carrier to at least this many people before the carrier develops symptoms – there could be a dozen more infected people across the city who are oblivious of their condition. 

It is believed that the repeated flareups in the capital, after a big cluster hit Beijing’s Xinfadi food wholesale market in June, is threatening to negate previous efforts and may even confound China’s claims that it has kept the disease at bay since April, after Wuhan was lifted out of a 76-day lockdown. 

Beijing’s party chief Cai Qi (2nd from right) inspects a testing center in Chaoyang, now a mid-risk area in China’s three-tier risk warning system. Photo: Handout

Beijing’s teeming urban Chaoyang district, the capital’s embassy district and its CBD, is now categorized as a “mid-risk area” in China’s three-tier risk warning regime, meaning residents there may face restrictions and health checks when they travel and people outside are discouraged from visiting.

Several residential estates and villages in the suburban Shunyi district, home to the Capital International Airport, also fall in the same category.

Those from Chaoyang and Shunyi or who have recently visited the districts will also find their health codes – smartphone-based QR codes that track travel history and must be presented before entering public venues or using public transport across the country – turn yellow for easier identification as some of them may still try to leave Beijing to flee the virus. 

Chaoyang and Shunyi governments are rushing to whisk close contacts to remote isolation camps and have tested more than 830,000 people since Friday.

Residents in Chaoyang who took part in testing but are yet to be given a clean slate are mandated to stay at home with police in PPE gear guarding entrances. Those facing temporary confinement include a number of Koreans who live in Chaoyang’s Wangjing community, known as the Little Seoul. 

There have also been at least two separate cases in coastal provinces with their origin in the capital. An infected Shunyi resident was hastily isolated in Ningbo, a port city in the eastern Zhejiang province, after he flew there in a packed plane, dined out and stayed in a luxurious hotel.

Hundreds of his close contacts, from flight attendants, taxi drivers to chefs, had been tested twice as of Monday, with no subsequent infections so far. In Shenzhen, in the southern Guangdong province, a resident came down with the virus after shuttling between Beijing and his home city for work in the past two weeks. His infection was not detected until the fourth test upon his return to Shenzhen. 

There is no sign of social distancing as people in a mall in the eastern port city of Ningbo queue for giveaways. Some of them do not bother wearing masks even though the city has confirmed a fresh case last week linked to the outbreaks in Beijing.
A huge ballroom in a mall in the city of Ningbo is packed full, with diners not bothered by news about spillovers of Beijing cases. Photos: Asia Times

Beijing CDC’s vice-director Pang Xinghong has cited “cold chain contamination” scenario as the most likely cause that sparked the cluster, saying the “patient zero” had worked at a warehousing facility processing frozen food. He also revealed that the virus was found on the keyboard of a laptop that belonged to one of the patients. 

China National CDC’s vice-director Feng Zijian also told China News Weekly that “foreign virus” must be responsible for these Beijing cases, adding that it was unrealistic for mega cities like Beijing to be totally impervious to Covid surges in foreign countries given the people and cargo from overseas.

Speculations about a possible partial lockdown in Beijing are gaining traction among the city’s residents queuing for testing or being told to scrap vacation plans.

Millions of migrant workers and college students in the capital now wonder if they should leave now before more stringent measures make their trips home impossible. They also dread the fickle and fragmented testing and isolation requirements across the country. 

In a hint of the risks lurking, more local governments have moved to tie in with the capital’s measures to keep people on their toes and ban long-distance trips in the run-up to the three-day New Year break and the Chinese New Year holiday in February.

This comes after National Health Commission director Ma Xiaowei told regional health chiefs on Sunday during an emergency teleconference to calibrate and coordinate their response to spillovers from existing clusters.

That said, it is unclear what penalties people will face if they shun these calls and travel nonetheless. China’s railway operator and airlines have not taken any departures off their schedules for the rest of December and early January.

China may face what the national CDC says could be the “toughest resurgence” in the cold season if cases spread beyond Beijing’s city limits. Strong cold snaps are primed for large swathes of the nation to bring temperatures to far below freezing, an ideal environment for flu and respiratory disease. 

Elsewhere, officials in the northeastern Liaoning province and the western provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan are also battling outbreaks involving newborns and reinfected patients. Portal cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen are on high alert to stave off imported cases. 

Meanwhile, Beijing has started inoculating priority and at-risk groups using attenuated vaccines supplied by SinoPharm and Sinovac, both based in the city. There have been no immediate numbers given of the people who have had shots, but the Beijing Daily said vaccination would be voluntary. 

In a move seen as reassuring to Beijing residents, the National People’s Congress announced on Sunday that its 2021 session pooling thousands of deputies will commence on March 5th in Beijing. This year’s parliamentary session was postponed from March to May due to the pandemic.

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