Beijing is on edge as the city adds new quarantine centers

BEIJING (AP) — Residents in some parts of the Chinese capital were emptying supermarket shelves and creating overwhelming delivery apps on Friday as the city government ordered faster construction of COVID-19 quarantine centers and field hospitals.

Uncertainty and scattered, unconfirmed reports of lockdowns in at least some districts of Beijing have fueled demand for food and other supplies, something the city has not seen for months.

Unusually large numbers of shoppers in the city’s northern suburbs left the shelves at markets empty, but shoppers were relatively few in the center of the city of 21 million, where supplies remained plentiful.

Daily cases of COVID-19 nationwide hit records, with 32,695 reported Friday. Of those, 1,860 were in Beijing, the majority of them asymptomatic.

Makeshift quarantine centers and field hospitals hastily erected in gymnasiums, exhibition centers, and other large, open, indoor spaces have become notorious for overcrowding, poor sanitation, scarce food supplies, and lights left on for 24 hours.

Most residents of the city have already been advised not to leave their premises, some of which are fenced off. At the entrances, workers dressed head-to-toe in white safety suits stop unauthorized persons and ensure residents can show a recent negative COVID-19 test. result on their mobile phone health apps to access.

Several college campuses have closed and students in lower grades have been transferred to online classes.

Meanwhile, some grocery delivery services in Beijing have reached capacity.

An increase in demand coupled with labor shortages prevented some customers from booking same-day delivery for food and supplies from popular online grocery services such as Alibaba’s Freshippo and Meituan Maicai on Friday.

Online, some Chinese users said some delivery drivers couldn’t work because their premises were locked. The reports could not be verified.

Alibaba did not immediately comment.

At a press conference on Friday afternoon, Xu Hejian, spokesman for the city government, said it was necessary “to strengthen the management and service guarantee” of quarantine centers and field hospitals where people who test positive for COVID-19 or have been in close contact with an infected person person are taken by the police.

Authorities should “further accelerate” construction and “coordinate the allocation of space, facilities, materials, personnel and other resources,” Xu said.

Officials have repeatedly urged China to stick to its tough “zero COVID” policy in recent days mandating lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines for anyone suspected of coming into contact with the virus. The policy is seen as taking a heavy toll on the economy and upsetting lives in many Chinese cities, prompting the World Health Organization and others to call for a change of tack — calls that the ruling Communist Party has angrily rejected.

Although the number of cases and deaths in China is relatively low compared to the US and other countries, the party remains committed to its strategy, which aims to isolate each case and completely eradicate the virus. Most other governments have relaxed anti-virus controls and now rely on vaccinations and immunity against previous infections to help prevent deaths and serious illness.

Tougher measures have been taken in many other parts of China, despite the government’s push for more precise and targeted measures to reduce social and economic costs. Local officials are under intense pressure to prevent outbreaks and often gravitate towards the most extreme measures.

Guangzhou on Monday suspended access to its Baiyun district of 3.7 million, while residents of some parts of Shijiazhuang, a city of 11 million southwest of Beijing, were told to stay home while mass testing is carried out.

An important point is concern about the public’s vulnerability to the virus. Since few have contracted COVID-19 or even been exposed to the virus, only a small percentage are believed to have built up effective levels of virus-fighting antibodies.

China has an overall coronavirus vaccination rate of over 92%, with most people having received at least one dose. But far fewer older Chinese – especially those over 80 – have received the vaccinations, and the previous vaccination campaign seems to have lost momentum.

Also on Friday, Beijing cut the amount of reserves banks are required to hold in a move that will help lenders comply with orders to delay repayments from businesses struggling due to mounting anti-virus controls.

The amount of their deposits that banks must leave with the People’s Bank of China will be reduced by 0.25 percentage point to an average of 7.8%, the central bank announced. It made no mention of virus checks and said the cut would “consolidate the upside for economic stability”.

Private economists and the International Monetary Fund have downgraded already low forecasts of China’s annual economic growth as the government closes shops and offices and tightens production controls.

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