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Panic buyers have emptied grocery shelves in Beijing, fearing the Chinese capital will soon have a Shanghai-style lockdown

April 25, 2022, 7:39 AM UTC

Panicked shoppers stripped supermarket shelves bare in Beijing after local health authorities ordered 3.5 million people in the city’s largest district to undergo three rounds of mandatory COVID tests this week.

“The situation is grim,” a member of Beijing’s municipal party committee said on Sunday, adding that the whole city needed to “act immediately” to prevent a surge in cases. Local officials have placed several buildings on lockdown and have suspended some in-person social activities to prevent the virus spreading. But Beijing health authorities believe the virus may have been “spreading invisibly” for a week.

Beijing authorities reported 19 new COVID cases on Monday morning, with almost 60 cases recorded since Friday. Reported cases have been traced mostly to Beijing’s Chaoyang district, home to the capital’s central business district as well as several of the city’s foreign embassies.

Although Beijing’s daily case number is low compared with infection levels in other major world cities, the capital is desperate to prevent its minor COVID spike from spiraling into an uncontrollable crisis, like the COVID outbreak currently gripping Shanghai.

Some Beijing residents—perhaps mindful of how a compulsory testing order in Shanghai evolved into an indefinite period of citywide lockdown that has left its residents desperate for food—are preparing for a prolonged lockdown in the capital. Shoppers are stockpiling food and other household supplies even as local officials pledge to ensure adequate supplies in order to avoid the food shortages seen during Shanghai’s lockdown. 

Shanghai’s lockdown tightens

A COVID outbreak in Beijing would further strain China’s COVID-zero policy, which uses mass testing and lockdowns to completely suppress outbreaks when they emerge. While the policy has successfully controlled earlier outbreaks, it has not been able to control Shanghai’s current outbreak of the Omicron variant.

Shanghai, a city of 26 million, is now in its fourth week of lockdown—though some parts of the city have been isolated for far longer. On Monday the financial hub reported almost 19,500 new COVID cases as well as 51 COVID deaths, marking a record high COVID fatality rate for the city.

Facing mounting COVID cases, Shanghai officials vowed to strengthen their COVID quarantine measures on Thursday evening. Soon after, social media posts showed authorities in several districts had erected wire fences around entrances to buildings with confirmed COVID cases, caging locked-down residents inside.

Public frustration is building over Shanghai’s lockdown. A video clip compiling audio snippets from the lockdown, including recordings of people pleading with local authorities to provide food and medical treatment, went viral on Chinese social media over the weekend, leading to a cat-and-mouse game between social media users sharing the video and China’s internet censors attempting to block it.

Shanghai’s COVID outbreak has roiled global supply chains, too. The city is home to the world’s largest port, but COVID control measures have forced factories to close and prevented truckers from traveling across the city, leading to a severe backlog of container ships waiting to dock and unload their cargo.

Authorities have permitted some factories to reopen under a “closed-loop system,” where workers live on-site and where entry is tightly controlled, but operations remain unstable. On Monday, the South China Morning Post reported that two factories owned by iPhone supplier Foxconn in Kunshan, a city that borders Shanghai, have been closed since Wednesday because of reported COVID cases among its staff.

COVID zero continues

Despite growing evidence of the economic and social costs of maintaining a COVID-zero policy, President Xi Jinping has called for the country to continue its zero-tolerance approach to managing COVID, leaving little room for his political underlings to waver.

Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who is overseeing Shanghai’s COVID response, said Sunday that the city would need to take “the strongest measures” to fight the outbreak, arguing that a prolonged coronavirus outbreak—ignoring that the current outbreak has lasted over a month—will only “cost more social resources.”

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