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Panic as Covid Surge Leads to Crawling Restrictions in Beijing

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(Bloomberg) – Beijing’s streets are emptying and grocery delivery services are running over capacity as rising Covid cases lead to lockdown-like restrictions in much of the Chinese capital.

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The city saw 1,854 new infections on Thursday, up from 1,611 on Wednesday, as the wider outbreak in China reached record levels. While food was plentiful in many stores, delivery apps like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd’s Freshpo — known in Chinese as Hema — and Walmart Inc’s Sam’s Club were overwhelmed as residents bowed down. Supermarkets in Chaoyang, Beijing’s largest district, stopped accepting delivery orders. Many restaurants also stopped serving takeout.

The wave, which has grown from less than 100 infections a day two weeks ago, is gradually taking control of the city of 22 million. Targeted closures are being seen in nearly every district, from block to block, and residents have been told not to leave Beijing unless absolutely necessary.

Still, the restrictions work quietly, as officials communicate through neighborhood committees and WeChat groups rather than broad, formal orders. The soft approach followed the launch of a 20-point virus playbook on Covid containment two weeks ago, which advised against city-wide lockdowns and mass testing exercises. The changes made by the country’s top leaders have proved difficult to follow in some areas due to rising cases.

Schools in several districts of Beijing have been closed and students have been asked to return to online learning. Most public places, including movie theaters and shopping malls, were closed, while some public parks reopened at 50% capacity.

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The capital was seen turning into a ghost town. Roads were deserted in some of the busiest areas, even during rush hour. According to a Bloomberg analysis of transit data, subway passenger numbers fell more than 64% for the week through Wednesday, compared to the same period in 2019.

Any person arriving in the capital must present a negative PCR test result taken within the last 48 hours before entering public places or riding buses.

In some compounds, restrictions appear to be increasing, with people being told not to go outside even if no infections are found. A woman’s request to go out of town for an important business meeting was rejected by the staff at her housing complex. He filed a complaint and appealed.

Another building was closed because a resident was found to be infected there. “Temporary control measures” were put in place, with no guidelines given as to how long they would last.

Some residents of the city’s southern Daxing district were required to show a letter from their employer and sign a note promising to go to their office only if they want to return to work. If they want to go to the supermarket, they have to sign another letter.

There are indications that city officials are preparing for a greater increase in infections. A new 200-bed makeshift hospital opened in a suburb of Yanqing district on Thursday, raising concerns that existing facilities may run out of space. Complaints about disorganization and disorder in the makeshift hospitals have been widely shared on social media, as people post pictures of dirty toilets and cramped rooms and complain about chaotic management.

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Other cities have openly returned to the old playbook as cases spread in their communities.

Local closures in Chongqing, a strategically important city in southwest China, mean the metropolis has largely closed despite a broader order or directive. Zhengzhou, home to the world’s largest iPhone factory, is effectively closed for five days on Friday. Shijiazhuang, a city near Beijing that eased testing in the wake of the new directive, quickly hit back.

Local officials are scrambling to reconcile the dual need to be less disruptive while also containing the virus, in line with China’s Covid Zero policy. While health officials and state media continue to emphasize the “dynamic zero,” controlling the outbreak without resorting to the usual toolkit has proven challenging as the colder weather descends and more contagious virus variants circulate.

China’s departure from the Covid zero scene extending beyond 2023

Authorities must reconcile the dual need to be less disruptive with their restrictions while continuing to contain the virus, in line with China’s Covid Zero policy. As health officials and state media continue to emphasize the need to adhere to “zero speed,” officials without their usual toolkits are struggling to bring outbreaks under control as the cold weather descends. More infectious virus variants are circulating.

– With help from Gao Yuan.

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