Workers in PPE gear disinfect a terminal of Beijing’s Capital International Airport, one of the few Chinese hubs still receiving international flights. Photo: Xinhua

Merely five days into the New Year, Beijing and surrounding areas are facing more fresh outbreaks as clusters crop up in districts and towns previously deemed Covid-free.

The 22 million residents in the Chinese capital and those who commute between the city and the many “bedroom towns” in the urban sprawl are on their toes after neighboring Hebei province logged 14 new cases in the 24 hours since Monday. Hebei also confirmed at least 30 asymptomatic carriers. 

Eleven cases have been identified in Hebei’s provincial capital of Shijiazhuang, about one hour by train from Beijing.

The cluster there, arguably the largest in the country since the start of winter, has ended Shijiazhuang’s six-month run of zero local infections and prompted the National Health Commission (NHC) to red-flag a populous town there as the nation’s only “high risk” infection hotspot, meaning a no-go zone under a full lockdown.

There are also three other “medium risk zones” in Shijiazhuang and across the rest of Hebei where all residents have been given shelter-in-place orders with non-locals barred from entering. 

Beijing’s municipal health authority confirmed one more case on Tuesday, bringing its tally to 993, higher than Taiwan’s, with 40 still hospitalized in sealed-off wards. Beijing’s total caseload may soon break into four digits given the burst of infections in Hebei.

Beijing’s government has sacked five cadres in charge of disease control in its suburban district of Shunyi, home to the busy Capital International Airport that is still receiving international flights diverted from other Chinese hubs for centralized checks and quarantine of all arrivals. 

A resident living in a “medium risk area” in Beijing has her face scanned before entering a locked down residential estate. Photo: Beijing Daily

While the virus makes its way into more districts and neighborhoods in Beijing and Hebei, fatigue is spreading among health workers there, more than four weeks after Beijing and Hebei sprang into action in early December when the current resurgence first hit.

The official Beijing Daily reported last week that the city had marshaled no fewer than 20,000 community and health workers to track down close contacts, lock down outbreak hotspots and test anyone who could have had even the slightest chance of coming into contact with anyone infected. 

Still, those resolute measures and mobilization, effective in snuffing out previous flare-ups in Beijing and elsewhere, are yet to keep the new wave at bay. 

“A dozen cases emerging in a megacity like Beijing and in densely populated Hebei may not look like a big deal, when compared with the dire picture in the rest of the world,” said an associate professor with the Tsinghua University’s School of Public Administration in Beijing. 

“Yet the Communist Party’s top leadership is fixated upon its ‘zero infections’ directive and thus may find the situation in the capital and neighboring area unacceptable.”

The academic, who asked not to be named, added that with China constantly suppressing the infections and the locus of the pandemic shifting to the West, most people in China tended to expect no local cases.

However, people including officials should now learn to live with sporadic outbreaks in major cities until most people got vaccine shots, he said.     

He revealed that residents in Chaoyang district, where Tsinghua’s main campus was located, had been told not to stray into other districts of the capital city unless for work, with their daily movements and commute routes monitored by the authorities via facial recognition and phone signal tracking.

Chaoyang is now a “medium risk zone” on the NHC’s map tracking outbreaks. 

A pilot inoculation program covering medical workers is being implemented in Beijing. The central government has promised a free, universal vaccination program for the entire population. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing traced the source of three local cases found in December to arguably imported auto parts. The three asymptomatic patients had worked at German automaker Daimler’s warehouse in the city that distributed parts nationwide.

Covid virus was found on the packaging of more imported auto parts this week in Beijing and cities in Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Shandong and Shanxi, according to Xinhua.  

Furthermore, it has been reported that in the northeastern port city of Dalian, a patient from a group of close contacts of a previous case was found after taking 11 tests. The city now has 45 cases.  

China added 16 imported cases on Tuesday, with six in Shanghai and four in Guangzhou. Both cities have alerted their people to imported cases containing a mutant strain of the Covid pathogen, B.1.1.7, first seen in the United Kingdom. China belatedly closed its border to arrivals from the UK on Christmas Eve.   

Both Shanghai and Guangzhou found their B.1.1.7 cases through retrospective gene sequencing of their large pools of samples from imported cases since September. The Guangzhou case, involving a teenager who returned from England on December 4, tested negative at Guangzhou’s airport but returned a positive result in subsequent tests at a quarantine facility. 

The two cities’ B.1.1.7 confirmations have sparked fears that more carriers of the new strain, believed to be more transmissible than other known types, could have entered more Chinese cities. Questions have also been raised about why it took so long for China to ban flights from the UK, as other Asian jurisdictions like Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan imposed similar bans as early as December 22.

Large crowds swamp a border checkpoint in Shenzhen since this week as tens of thousands of Hongkongers flee their city that is in the grip of Covid. Photo: Xinhua

Wang Huaqing, a chief immunity program consultant with China’s National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, appealed for calm during a State Council press conference on Sunday. 

Wang said the conclusion of the National CDC’s preliminary study of the strain dovetailed with the findings by Western institutions: B.1.1.7 could be more contagious but may not necessarily be more lethal and that vaccines being rolled out could still offer protection from it. 

The NHC announced a free, population-size inoculation program on the last day of 2020, having approved an inactivated vaccine from the state-owned Sinopharm a day earlier. But the vaccination plan is light on detail, with no definitive timetables.  

The NHC again asked people not to travel during the week-long Chinese New Year break in February, saying cool weather and meeting in groups could help the virus incubate and spread. It said China was “halfway through the winter of infection” and people should discipline themselves and avoid trips or gatherings before “mass vaccination could usher in an inflection in the spring.”   

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