Beijing covid outbreak leads to grocery store run, fears of lockdown

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Panicked residents in Beijing stockpiled food and supplies, cleaning out grocery store shelves, as fears of a hard lockdown on the Chinese capital spread after authorities on Sunday announced mass testing to contain a small cluster of new coronavirus cases.

Beijing officials have reported 70 cases of the coronavirus since Friday in eight districts, with most in the city’s biggest district, Chaoyang. The 3.4 million residents of Chaoyang were ordered to undergo three rounds of testing this week, advised to go home directly after work and to “reduce” social interactions.

Local news reports and videos showed road closures and apartment buildings sealed off with metal fencing as authorities imposed “targeted lockdowns” in neighborhoods found to have positive cases. Long lines of residents waiting to be tested could be seen throughout Chaoyang district.

Worried the restrictions and mass testing presage a sudden citywide lockdown similar to that of Shanghairesidents quickly began panic buying goods for an extended quarantine.

The extreme measures taken in response to relatively few cases reflect the government’s unease over the more transmissible omicron variant, which has broken through China’s strict border controls and quarantine measures and tested its previously lauded handling of the pandemic.

Officials in Beijing are under even more pressure to make sure the politically important city does not become a repeat of Shanghai’s lockdown, marred by food shortages, clashes with authorities and seeing citizens venting their frustration on and offline.

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Internet users posted photos of empty grocery stores in Beijing as supplies of eggs, vegetables and meat ran low. Wumart supermarkets extended business hours while food and grocery delivery platforms added delivery hours.

Online shopping platforms such as Meituan reported a spike in orders of as much as 50 percent since Sunday, while Beijing’s commerce bureau on Sunday called on platforms selling fresh produce to increase their inventory and delivery manpower.

Yang Beibei, deputy head of Chaoyang district, tried to assure citizens that supplies would not run low. “Our supplies and reserves are quite sufficient. Please everyone, do not worry,” she said.

Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention, called on residents not to travel for the upcoming Labor Day holiday on May 1 and to live a “simple life,” avoiding group meals and gatherings.

“The situation is still severe,” she said. “Remain calm and don’t panic. Don’t spread or believe rumours. Let us work together to defeat the virus.”

Officials said more than 2,000 close contacts in Chaoyang had been identified and more than 14 areas were now placed under “closed management,” in which residents are barred from leaving their homes. Pang said Sunday that the virus had been spreading “stealthily and quickly” for a week. About a quarter of patients recorded were 60 or older, and of those only half had been vaccinated.

China’s National Health Commission reported Monday 20,200 new cases across the country, as well as 51 new deaths in Shanghai.

Chinese authorities have held to the country’s “dynamic clearing” coronavirus policy in the face of growing public frustration with controls that prevent people from going to work or accessing the medical system normally. The policy, linked closely with the decision-making of top Chinese leader Xi Jinping, has become a political necessity.

Cai Qi, the Communist Party secretary for Beijing, said Saturday that the city must be “strictly on guard.” “All departments and units at all levels must take the most decisive measures” to block the chain of transmission.

Residents in Shanghai posted advice online for their counterparts in Beijing on how to survive an indefinite quarantine at home, including bartering with neighbors, apps for entertaining children at home and a list of items to take if sent to a quarantine center.

One Internet user posted a photo of a loudspeaker, an ax and pliers — tools for residents to make themselves heard from their windows or cutting through fencing put up outside their homes — for “friends in Beijing to consider.”

Another joke making the rounds online on Monday said: “Shanghai was locked down, waiting for supplies. Beijing has stocked up and is waiting for a lockdown.”

Lyric Li in Seoul and Pei-Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.

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