This wave of COVID-19 outbreak in Beijing may have been spreading covertly for a week, and many fear the virus will spread further. It’s also unknown when Shanghai will be able to contain the outbreak, and if there are large infections in Beijing, the impact will be unimaginable. The ability to effectively control this wave will be a test for both Beijing and the country.
Chaoyang district of Beijing, the epicenter of the new wave, began three rounds of full-scale nucleic acid testing Monday. Based on past experience, three rounds of such testing are required. Also on Monday, the district announced an upgrade of control measures, setting aside certain area within the district and asking residents to stay within the area. This is an unprecedented prevention and control measure in Beijing.
Nucleic acid testing in Beijing is now taken also in other districts and will cover 90 percent of the city’s population. I live in Chaoyang district and had my first nucleic acid test at noon on Monday, and it was a pool testing that mixed 10 samples in one group. The government has set up many testing sites in communities where people were cooperative and the order has been maintained well.
Fortunately, I live outside of the temporary controlled zone not subject to any restrictions and the rest of Chaoyang district is still functioning normally. After my test, I went to a restaurant that was crowded, and there were also many customers in a few restaurants next to it.
I was thinking how hard it would be to stop the covert spread of the virus in such a densely populated city of Beijing. If one person in the restaurant tested positive, everyone who dined there that day and the days after would be close contacts who, including myself, would have to be quarantined. Yet Beijing can’t easily fall into a wide range pause just because of this outbreak since Chaoyang district is one of the most prosperous areas in Beijing, with the CBD and the most bar-heavy recreational areas like Sanlitun. The isolation of Chaoyang district from other areas in Beijing is almost infeasible.
The strategy of Beijing is to screen for covert infections through nucleic acid tests, quarantine all close contacts with a quick turnaround, impose lockdown or social restrictions on small areas where infected people are active, and try to cut off all channels of virus transmission. It’s supposed to work, and once it fails, the last line of defense is “citywide static management,” namely the city’s lockdown.
The extreme prospect of lockdown would be far-fetched to residents in Beijing in the past. But with the previous experience in Shanghai, it’s not entirely unimaginable despite the very low chances.
I believe that Beijing will never be on a citywide lockdown until it’s absolutely necessary. The city will fight this wave of outbreak in a grid-style and relatively normal way to control the spread of the virus. Shanghai’s out-of-control epidemic outbreak and “citywide static management” have impacted the economy of the entire Yangtze River Delta region and undermined public confidence. And if Beijing also moves toward a “citywide static management” with a longer lockdown, the impact will only be greater and political. Once that happens, it will be far less meaningful even if all COVID-19 cases are eventually eliminated at great cost.
In other words, Beijing will prove one thing: Does the out-of-control epidemic in our certain mega-city occur as a coincidence, or is it something inevitable? Is it the result of some omissions that could have been plugged in by summing up past experience and making improvements? Or is it the result of the aggressiveness of the Omicron variant? If Beijing, with all the increased vigilance and measures it has taken, cannot stop the spread of the virus; if this mega-city is destined to come to a halt and go under an “economic shock” to contain the epidemic, then it might reshape the Chinese people’s perception of the epidemic.
The vast majority of Beijing residents don’t want to see that. None of them wants the city to become a second Shanghai, with 10,000 to 20,000 new cases a day. The Beijing government is clearly very determined to contain the outbreak, and the operation of the prevention and control measures has been organized very quickly. Residents are generally impressed by this response.
There had been the first round of food bulk buying in Beijing, but the supplies were tested to be sufficient. Even in temporarily controlled areas in Chaoyang district, supermarkets remain open, and the market mechanism is still functioning, rather than being replaced by the temporary management of local government like in other cities’ lockdown areas.
There is a strong hope that Beijing will defeat this round of outbreak with a concentrated battle at a manageable cost. It is hoped that Beijing can be an example to prove that the Omicron variant is indeed manageable in our mega-cities at a limited cost. It is expected that Beijing can prove that prevention and control measures do not mean only “lockdown in one city after another,” thus encouraging the whole country’s epidemic prevention and control efforts. It cannot be denied that since the “fall” of Shanghai and the lockdown or semi-lockdown of many cities across the country, the public’s mood was somewhat dampened, fearing that lockdowns will cost the economy more and more and that we can’t find a fundamental solution. A battle that can turn the tables is needed now.
Thus, it is likely that Beijing is starting an extremely critical defense war that has significance to the overall situation. Beijing must not only defeat the Omicron variant, but also achieve it in a relatively unhurried and orderly manner that can have a demonstration effect on the national fight against the epidemic and form a valuable exploration. As Beijing has the most epidemiologists, abundant medical resources, and a population with a higher education level, I am hopeful that Beijing will be able to take on this critical role.
The writer is a commentator with the Global Times