Beijing races to avoid Covid-19 lockdown by testing millions

Strict checks in affected areas of Chinese capital aim to prevent the entire city from being shut down like Shanghai

Health workers in protective suits carry foldable chairs as they head to a locked-down residential complex in Beijing on May 8. AP

Millions of Beijing residents queued for another round of Covid-19 tests on Sunday, in what is becoming a daily routine as China's capital races to contain a small but stubborn outbreak — and avoid a Shanghai-type prolonged lockdown.

The commercial hub of Shanghai, which conducted 63 million PCR tests and 126 million rapid antigen tests last week on its 25 million residents, will also continue daily screening in the coming days, city officials said.

Regular testing is set to become a feature of daily life in many cities in China, as authorities aim to detect and isolate infections early enough to avoid mass closures and movement curbs.

Strict Covid restrictions in Beijing, Shanghai and dozens of other major cities across China are taking a psychological toll on the country's people, weighing on the world's second-largest economy and disrupting global supply chains and international trade.

Beijing has closed gyms and entertainment venues, banned dine-in services at restaurants and shut scores of bus routes and almost 15 per cent of its sprawling subway system. Even the businesses that remained open were suffering.

Regular clients have stopped dropping by, not wanting to risk any activity that could classify them as close contacts of Covid patients and force them into quarantine.

“They’re afraid of getting abnormalities in their health apps,” said a barber who asked to be identified only by his surname Song, referring to the mobile monitoring software all residents must use.

“North of us are malls and offices that have been sealed, and their apps might mark them as close contacts if they came.”

Song said his salon would try to stay open as long as possible, but he was not sure for how long. “This outbreak has truly unsettled everyone."

Job support

Premier Li Keqiang in a teleconference with other top officials pledged on Saturday to support "as many employers as possible", especially among small and mid-size companies, to keep people in their jobs, state agency Xinhua reported.

China's unemployment rate stood at 5.8 per cent in March, the highest since May 2020, while the rate in 31 major cities hit a record 6 per cent. April's full lockdown of Shanghai and stricter curbs elsewhere have further pummelled the job market.

Chinese authorities are unwavering in their commitment to stamp out the coronavirus, rather than live with Covid like most other countries, which are easing or ditching virus measures. Last week the authorities threatened action against critics of the zero-Covid policy.

In Shanghai, facing China's biggest ever outbreak, most people have been confined to their housing compounds for more than a month. Many complain of not being able to get food or to access emergency healthcare or other basic services.

Parts of Shanghai have had their risk levels officially downgraded to the point where government rules would in theory allow residents to leave their homes.

But while some were allowed out for brief walks or grocery trips, most were still stuck behind the locked gates of their compounds, causing widespread frustration, even altercations.

Videos posted online last week showed dozens of workers at Apple and Tesla supplier Quanta overwhelming hazmat-suited security guards and vaulting over factory gates to escape being trapped inside amid Covid rumours.

Relentless Covid testing

Beijing was desperate to avoid such drama, relentlessly working to track and isolate infections.

On Sunday, residents lined up for another round of tests in the Chaoyang, Fangshan and Fengtai districts and small parts of others. In a large Chaoyang compound, two people moved around with loud speakers blaring a repeated message reminding residents to be tested.

Many residents, even if not subject to the mass tests, still must show a recent negative result to get to work or enter various venues.

Beijing's daily Covid cases are in the dozens, much lower than Shanghai's at this point in its outbreak, when infections were in the triple digits and rising.

Shanghai's cases fell for a ninth day, according to figures released on Sunday, but remained in the thousands.

Like other cities in China, Shanghai is building thousands of permanent PCR testing stations. With most residents still indoors, this seems to anticipate a gradual return to normal life when people are back out on the streets.

But authorities have warned that remains far off.

Top Chinese leaders meeting last week said the nation would fight any comment or action that distorted, doubted or repudiated its Covid policy. Shanghai party and city officials have also warned against complacency.

With reporting from agencies.

Updated: May 08, 2022, 1:09 PM
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