Beijing on edge as city adds new quarantine centers

BEIJING (AP) — Residents of some parts of the Chinese capital were emptying supermarket shelves and overwhelming delivery apps on Friday as the city government ordered faster construction of COVID-19 quarantine centers and field hospitals.

Uncertainty and scattered, unconfirmed reports of lockdowns in at least some districts of Beijing have fueled demand for food and other supplies, something not seen in the city for months.

Unusually large numbers of shoppers in the city’s northern suburbs left empty shelves in the markets, but customers were relatively few in the city center of 21 million, where supplies remained plentiful.

Daily cases of COVID-19 across the country are hitting records, with 32,695 reported on Friday. Of these, 1,860 were in Beijing, most of them asymptomatic.

Makeshift quarantine centers and hastily set up field hospitals in gymnasiums, exhibition centers and other large indoor open spaces have become notorious for overcrowding, poor sanitation, low food supplies and lights that stay on 24 hours.

Most of the city’s residents have already been advised not to leave their compounds, some of which are gated. At entrances, workers dressed head-to-toe in white hazmat suits stop unauthorized people and make sure residents show a recent negative COVID-19 test result on their cellphone health apps to gain access.

Several college campuses have been shut down and lower grade students have been moved to online classes.

Meanwhile, some of Beijing’s grocery delivery services have reached capacity.

A surge in demand combined with a shortage of workers has prevented some customers from booking same-day delivery slots on Fridays for food and supplies from popular online grocery services such as Alibaba’s Freshippo and Meituan Maicai.

Online, some Chinese users claimed that some delivery workers were unable to work because their complexes were on lockdown. Reports could not be verified.

Alibaba did not comment immediately.

In a press conference on Friday afternoon, city government spokesman Xu Hejian said there was a need to “strengthen the management and service assurance” of quarantine centers and field hospitals where people test positive for COVID. -19 or have been in close contact with an infected person are caught by the police.

The authorities must “further speed up” their construction and “coordinate the allocation of space, facilities, materials, personnel and other resources,” Xu said.

Officials have repeatedly insisted in recent days that China must stick to its “zero-COVID” policy that mandates lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines for anyone suspected of having come into contact with the virus. The policy is seen as taking a harsh toll on the economy and disrupting life in many Chinese cities, leading the World Health Organization and others to call for a change of course – calls the ruling Communist Party angrily rejected.

Although the number of cases and deaths in China is relatively low compared to the United States and other countries, the party remains committed to the strategy, which aims to isolate every case and completely eliminate the virus. Most other governments have relaxed virus controls and now rely on vaccinations and immunity from past infections to help prevent deaths and serious illnesses.

Harsher measures have been enacted in many other parts of China, despite the government’s calls for more precise and targeted measures to reduce the social burden and economic costs. Local officials are under heavy pressure to prevent epidemics and often gravitate towards the most extreme measures.

Guangzhou suspended access to its Baiyun district of 3.7 million residents on Monday, while residents of some areas of Shijiazhuang, a city of 11 million people southwest of Beijing, were told to stay at home while mass testing is being conducted.

A key issue is concern about public vulnerability to the virus. With few having contracted COVID-19 or even been exposed to the virus, only a small percentage are thought to have built up effective levels of virus-fighting antibodies.

China has an overall coronavirus vaccination rate of over 92%, with most people receiving at least one dose. But far fewer elderly Chinese, particularly those over the age of 80, have received the injections and the previous vaccination campaign appears to have lost momentum.

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