A resurgence of COVID-19 infections in Beijing has ended the capital city’s two-month-long virus-free period and threatened to cloud China’s self-proclaimed success in combating the pandemic.
A week earlier, China released a 37,000-word white paper chronicling its monthslong fight against the coronavirus and heralding its success in containing COVID-19.
As of Sunday, the number of confirmed cases in Beijing has surged to 79, most of which are linked to the Xinfadi wholesale food market in the city’s southwestern Fengtai district, Beijing health authorities said at a press conference on Monday.
Countrywide, China totaled 177 confirmed cases on Sunday after having accumulated more than 83,000 patients in the past six months.
The city government has taken aggressive measures to stem the latest wave of outbreaks, including expansive testing, contact tracing and quarantining, as well as a lockdown of 21 residential compounds, officials said Monday.
At least nine schools near the market have been shut down. People who were exposed to the market’s workers and visitors were ordered to work from home for the next 14 days.
Since Saturday, Beijing has closed itself to tourists.
Initial genome sequencing of the viral strain from the Beijing market showed it originated from Europe, state media reported Monday, citing epidemiologists.
Three district officials, including Zhou Yuqing, deputy head of Fengtai district, were removed from their posts for “failing” to prevent the disease, Mayor Cai Qi said Sunday, declaring that the city has since entered a "wartime emergency mode.”
But those efforts have not helped to ease residents’ minds.
On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social microblogging site, one user asked, “Will Beijing become the next Wuhan? Please keep the public updated. Don’t put people’s lives at risk for the sake of economic growth.”
Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, is believed to be where the coronavirus originated and caused the global pandemic that began in December.
Many others complained about the city’s slow response in disclosing the movement map of new COVID-19 patients on Monday.
“Please look to the movement map of those three confirmed patients, made public by the Hebei (government). Can you please do your job!” another user wrote.
Economic activities near the Xinfadi wholesale market, the city’s largest, have once again come to a halt.
“I don’t know much (about the outbreak), except I learned from (video-sharing platform) TikTok that we have to take PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests,” a resident who lives close to the Xinfadi market and works in a nearby hotel, told VOA on the condition of anonymity. “Basically, many of us (in the neighborhood) just hurl up at home.”
A nearby restaurant has also suffered huge losses in recent days.
“We are hit pretty bad because we are (a place) mostly for large gatherings,” the restaurant manager who refused to be identified, told VOA. “Today, there’s not a single (dine-in) customer. Throughout the outbreak, there have been fewer and fewer (dine-in) customers. … I will be lying if I say I’m not worried.”
People who live far from the market were not as panicked, although many worried about contaminated food, particularly salmon. Coronavirus was earlier found on the chopping board of a seller of imported salmon at the market.
With declining demand, the city’s salmon supply has plummeted in recent days.
A resident in downtown Beijing told VOA that the market serves as Beijing’s kitchen, supplying 70% of the city’s demand for protein and vegetables.
According to local media reports, more than 10,000 wholesalers and workers, some of whom are not registered, and 3,000 trucks operated daily in the market before it was closed on Saturday, fueling worries that the resurgence of infection may get worse.
The Beijing resident who spoke to VOA anonymously attributed the city’s new wave of outbreak to its relaxation of COVID-19 controls last month.
That echoes some netizens’ concerns, since many subway commuters, including senior citizens, have not worn face masks.
A Beijing-based dissident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he believed Chinese authorities will now tighten controls to stabilize the city’s outbreak, including a stable supply of vegetables after panic-buying kicked in.
He said the vegetables were all gone when he last visited the supermarket. The city’s tightened controls and an emerging cluster of patients will further force many to avoid crowded places, he said.
He added that people’s freedom of speech will also be tightened, since authorities want to control its official narrative against the outbreak.
Already, VOA’s request to talk to a public health expert in Beijing was rejected after the expert replied that state police had ordered him not to accept any interviews with foreign media.