Anxiety in Beijing as authorities fight a new coronavirus epidemic | News from the world


Zhang On, 25, has been waiting for more than two hours in front of a parking lot to be tested for coronavirus. Police stand behind a cord, screaming in vain through loudspeakers so that people do not gather in groups. When they are not watching, two women pass under the tape and jump into the queue.An officer told Zhang and his colleagues, restaurant staff at a shopping center, to go to the other entrance to the test center, located on the outskirts of a park. They drag themselves over there to be turned back again. Nearby, people get up or sit in a group while the police try to drive them away.

“I don’t know who organized this, but it doesn’t make much sense. With so many people, what if you came here to catch the virus? Said Zhang.

Like most people who have been asked by their local neighborhood committee or work directors to come here for testing, he is confused and annoyed.

After months of praising its victory over Covid-19 and offering its expertise to other countries, China has been hit by a new epidemic, arguably the worst possible place for Chinese leaders: Beijing.

“Beijing is much more important not only because it is the seat of political power, but because they painted this story … that China came out of it under the leadership of the party. This new epidemic therefore casts doubt on this successful story, “said Zhou Xun, a health intervention specialist in China at the University of Essex.

In the past eight days, Beijing has registered nearly 200 new cases of coronavirus, linked to a sprawling wholesale market in the southeast of the city. This market and two others have been closed and at least 33 neighborhoods have been subject to different locks. Schools and places of sport and entertainment have been closed.

Authorities ordered all residents to avoid non-essential travel outside the capital and suspended hundreds of flights and all long-distance buses. Other cities and provinces have started to impose quarantine measures on travelers from Beijing.

The city lowered its Covid emergency response level on June 6, and raised it again 10 days later, and residents responded with a mixture of frustration and anxiety. The roads that were overcrowded when offices and businesses reopened are again more empty.

Locked-out people wait behind a front door for their goods to be delivered inside a residential complex in Beijing. Photography: Nicolas Asfouri / AFP / Getty Images

Some of those brutally placed in control panicked and posted messages online asking for help. A resident who said he lived near the Xinfadi market said families in their complex were running out of food. Authorities have since said that people under house quarantine will be helped to get supplies.

Others have reported being forced to undergo coronavirus testing and quarantine even though they have not approached the Xinfadi market. “What kind of big data is it,” wrote one who said he was quarantined after driving less than 3 miles from the high-risk area near Xinfadi.

In the past week, Beijing has tested about 700,000 people. “Everyone is afraid. No one wanted this to happen, “said Zhang, waiting in the queue near Chaoyang Park.

Another person there, Shi Panyu, 25, said, “You think something can’t happen again – and then it happens. Since the New Year, he says, he conscientiously wears a face mask outside and respects safety measures. “I did not expect a second wave in Beijing. “

Outbreak workers wear protective suits while waiting to help those who have come into contact with the Xinfadi wholesale market.

Outbreak workers wear protective suits while waiting to help those who have come into contact with the Xinfadi wholesale market. Photography: Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

The chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention Wu Zunyou said on Thursday that the epidemic had been brought under control, but warned that the new cases could continue to increase “for some time” before stabilize as they did in Wuhan.

According to public health experts, the Beijing epidemic says less about China’s handling of the crisis than about the difficulty of containing the virus without a vaccine.

“The virus does not obey orders, draconian measures or territorial borders. It just shows that there is a limit, even for an authoritarian state that has gone to great lengths to contain the epidemic, “said Huang Yanzhong, a senior global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States.

He warned that without identifying the origin of the epidemic, he could not be arrested. “Even if there is no increase in cases, that does not necessarily mean that the epidemic is under control,” said Huang. “You can test people, treat them, quarantine them and isolate them, but if the source of the problem persists, it means that you have not found the fundamental solution.”

A photo published by the Chinese news agency Xinhua showing workers spraying disinfectant in the central hall of Beijing Railway Station.

Workers spray disinfectant in the central hall of Beijing Railway Station. Photography: Chen Zhonghao / AP

The origin of the new outbreak has become a political problem, just as there was controversy over the origin of the virus in Wuhan, where it was first detected last year. Researchers and Chinese government officials have suggested the virus originated from contaminated salmon from overseas. Another theory is that a “super spreader” infected people at the market.

Scientists estimated that the first infections occurred in late May or early June, but the director of the Chinese CDC said the virus may have spread a month earlier.

Beijing released the virus’s genome on Friday, concluding that it appeared to be a European strain. “The virus is from Europe, but it is different from the virus that is currently spreading in Europe,” said Zhang Yong, a CDC official. “It is older than the virus that is currently spreading in Europe. ”

Epidemiologists and public health experts have asked for more details, while critics say Beijing seems to be pushing the idea that the virus came from abroad as a means of deflecting blame. “This is consistent with the message that the authorities are spreading that the virus is an outside threat,” said Zhou.

Zhou said it is clear that the authorities are working hard to ensure that Beijing does not become “Wuhan 2.0”. A few days after the emergence of the new outbreak, three people were dismissed for their management of the crisis, and officials held regular press conferences, sometimes multiple daily, and published constant updates on the latest measures and figures. “It is a way of reassuring the people they control,” said Zhou.

Buyers have their temperature checked by thermal imaging at the entrance to a local market in Beijing.

Buyers have their temperature checked by thermal imaging at the entrance to a local market in Beijing. Photography: Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

The deluge of information masks the deletion by other means. At the Jinying Seafood and Vegetable Market near the Chaoyang Park test site, staff seemed anxious to project a control image. Workers disinfect the market while a vendor wearing a mask dozes at his stall.

Officials said the company operating the market did not accept interviews with foreign media. A group surrounded two Guardian journalists, forcing them to delete any photos or recordings taken on the market and physically preventing them from leaving.

As the police began to drive people away from the park test site, the groups discussed where to go for lunch. They would be notified when there is space to test.

Like many residents, Zhang may be more nervous about losing his job than catching the virus. For him, the possibility that the epidemic is worse than we know or that the authorities are concealing critical information – as at the very beginning of the Wuhan epidemic – is not a major concern.

“Even if they were,” he said, “there is nothing we can do about it. ”

Additional reporting by Lillian Yang


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