Beijing’s new normal includes desolate malls, deserted streets, and inhabitants avoiding one another—but not because the city is in lockdown mode, like many other Chinese cities before it, as reported by CNN.
Strict control measures
This time, it’s because a week after authorities loosened the nation’s stringent Covid policy, Beijing has been hit by a sizable, spreading outbreak — the city’s first since the start of the pandemic.
On Tuesday, Sanlitun, an upscale shopping area, could see the effects of the outbreak in the city. There, the often busy stores and eateries were deserted, sometimes operating with a skeleton staff, and just serving takeout. Similar situations can be seen all throughout Beijing, where businesses, residences, and workplaces report understaffing or changing work schedules as people become ill with the virus. Others, meanwhile, stay inside to prevent contracting the disease.
One community worker told CNN that 21 of the 24 workers in her Beijing neighbourhood committee office, tasked with coordinating residential matters and activities, had fallen ill in recent days.
“As our superiors are mostly infected, there’s not much work being given to us,” said the employee, Sylvia Sun. “(The usual) events, lectures, performances, parent-child activities will definitely not be held.”
Beijing is already on the front lines of a new reality for China: not since the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, Chinese cities have dealt with an outbreak without strict control measures. Prior to the new laws, Beijing was already suffering a small-scale attack.
However, there is no accurate information on the virus’s spread for a location where every case was meticulously monitored until earlier this month. The testing standards that traditionally governed daily life in China have been significantly reduced by the new Covid rules, and residents now prefer to use home antigen tests when they are available, making official data unreliable.
Impossible to grasp
China’s National Health Commission (NHC) announced on Wednesday that it would stop include asymptomatic infections as part of its daily tally after giving up on trying to keep track of all the new Covid cases. These instances had been previously recorded, albeit in a different category than “confirmed” or symptomatic patients.
“It is impossible to accurately grasp the actual number of asymptomatic infections,” the NHC said in a notice, citing reduced levels of official testing.
Authorities noted 2,249 symptomatic Covid instances nationwide for the day prior on Wednesday morning, with 20% of those cases found in the nation’s capital. Reduced testing is also believed to have an impact on those numbers. According to CNN’s reporting from Beijing, there may be several times more cases than were initially thought in the Chinese capital.
James Zimmerman, a lawyer and former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, stated on Twitter that roughly 90% of the individuals in his office now have Covid, up from only about half a few days ago.
“Our ‘work at home’ policy is now ‘work at home if you’re well enough.’ This thing came on like a runaway freight train,” he wrote on Wednesday.
Experts have said the relatively low number of previously infected Covid-19 patients in China and the lower effectiveness of its widely-used inactivated-virus vaccines against Omicron infection – as compared with previous strains and mRNA vaccines – could enable the virus to spread rapidly.
“The current strains will spread faster in China than they have spread in other parts of the world because those other parts of the world have some immunity against infection from previous waves of earlier Omicron strains,” said the University of Hong Kong chair professor of epidemiology Ben Cowling.
Authorities in Beijing are advising individuals who are not very ill to refrain from contacting emergency services. While it often takes time for the full level of severe disease or death in Covid-19 outbreaks to become apparent, there are signals of an impact on the healthcare system.
From December 5 to December 11, the city’s major hospitals saw 19,000 flu patients, more than six times the amount seen the week before, according to a health official on Monday.
In comparison to the previous week, there were 16 times more patients visiting fever clinics on Sunday. In China, where there isn’t a robust primary care system, going to the hospital for a minor sickness is quite prevalent.
The majority of the 50 severe and critical cases in hospitals are, however, those with underlying medical disorders, according to Sun Chunlan, China’s top official in charge of controlling Covid, who was speaking during a Tuesday inspection of Beijing’s reaction to the pandemic.
“At present, the number of newly infected people in Beijing is increasing rapidly, but most of them are asymptomatic and mild cases,” said Sun, who also called for more fever clinics to be set up and made assurances that supply of medicines – which have been hit by a surge in purchases in recent days – was being increased.
Leading Shanghai physician Zhang Wenhong issued a warning, urging hospitals to take all necessary precautions to prevent medical staff from contracting illnesses as quickly as the patients they treat. According to local media accounts, he warned that such a situation could lead to a lack of medical personnel and patient infections.
In public discourse, even on social media, there is a perceptible lack of access to care and medications. A social media uproar was started by a Beijing reporter’s description of her experience receiving treatment for Covid-19 at a temporary hospital. Since Monday, Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, has had more than 93 million views of a hashtag associated with the reporter’s story.
Social media users questioned why the reporter received such treatment while others were in need after she displayed her two-bedroom apartment and access to fever medication in a video interview published by her employer Beijing Radio and Television Station on Sunday.
“Awesome! A young reporter gets a space in a temporary hospital and takes liquid Ibuprofen for children that are hard to find for parents in Beijing,” read one sarcastic comment, which got thousands of likes.
Another popular response complained that “ordinary people” stay at home with kids and elderly with high fevers.
“Could you give (her) bed to me if I called (the hospital)?” the Weibo user asked.
Amid fears of the virus, residents have rushed to buy canned peaches, following rumours the vitamin C-loaded snack could prevent or treat Covid. Chinese state media has since warned people the preserved fruit is not a Covid remedy nor a substitute for medicine.
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