BEIJING — Faced with a growing number of coronavirus infections across Beijing, city officials are trying to test most of the capital’s 22 million residents in the hope of avoiding the pain of imposing a citywide lockdown like in Shanghai.
On Tuesday, residents across the city, from the northwestern tech hub Zhongguancun to Dongcheng District, home to many historic sites, waited in long lines to get tested. Government workers in full protective gear set up tents and crowd-control barriers to organize the flow of people.
“The current epidemic situation is severe and complex,” Tian Wei, a spokesman for Beijing’s Communist Party committee, said at a news conference on Tuesday.
The Beijing government on Monday ordered about three-quarters of the city’s population to undergo three mandatory rounds of testing in five days, after recording several dozen new infections since Friday. The only Beijing residents not required to test in are those living in outlying, mostly rural districts.
Beijing is ordering mass testing across the city more quickly than in Shanghai, where officials launched testing on a similar scale only after infections had been recorded for weeks and more than 1,000 cases had emerged.
“It’s cheaper to act earlier than to act later,” said Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist who is the chief of the Covid-19 task force at the World Health Network, a volunteer group of scientists and doctors.
The idea is to move faster with testing to understand how widely the outbreak has spread before seeking to impose restrictions on movement. Officials have acknowledged that the highly contagious, stealthy Omicron variant had breached Beijing’s defenses and probably has gone undetected in the city for a week, particularly in the populous district of Chaoyang.
“Recently, there have been several outbreaks in Chaoyang District, showing the characteristics of hidden transmission, strong contagion and rapid spread,” Yang Beibei, deputy head of the district government, said at a news conference on Monday.
On Tuesday, officials said that 22 new cases had been found in Beijing, and that health workers were particularly focused on outbreaks that have emerged in the city’s schools. Six of the latest cases were students from the same school. Officials said samples had been gathered from nearly 4 million people on Monday alone.
Beijing officials urged residents to work remotely, and they suspended large-scale gatherings such as cultural performances, sports events and exhibitions. Some streets in Chaoyang, where most of the cases have been detected so far, were uncommonly quiet. Officials had earlier identified a small area elsewhere in the district, covering about a square mile of southern Chaoyang, where they ordered residents locked down or discouraged them from leaving their homes.
Many Chaoyang residents appeared to be heeding such advice, with sidewalk eateries and shops left with no patrons. Concerns about a lockdown had prompted some panic buying on Sunday and Monday, but convenience stores and supermarkets appeared well stocked on Tuesday.
“Domestic goods are sufficient and supply is sufficient, please consume rationally,” blared a loudspeaker at a local supermarket in Chaoyang District. “Do not overbuy, and do not believe and spread rumors. Leave the supermarket quickly after shopping.”
Liu Changle, a meat counter employee, said that his company had doubled the stock it made available to customers on Monday, and many items had nearly sold out. The supermarket had also extended business hours on Sunday night, and a steady stream of customers bought up all the vegetables and meat. On Tuesday, he said, the flow of business was back to normal.
“It seems that everyone has bought enough food and will not come to buy,” Mr. Liu said. Asked if he were worried about being placed in quarantine, he said he was from Hubei, the province where the coronavirus first emerged in early 2020, and had lived under extensive lockdowns then as well. “I think I’m used to being in quarantine, so I’m not nervous any more.”
Beijing has sought to assure the public about supplies to prevent widespread panic. The city’s deputy mayor, Chen Jining, inspected several markets on Monday in a staged event to show that the authorities were paying attention to food supplies. Zhao Weidong, deputy director of the city’s commerce bureau, said Tuesday that the government would start releasing 100 tons of eggs from its reserves to meet public demand.
Beijing also does not appear to have interfered so far with established private-sector distribution and delivery. By contrast, Shanghai introduced stringent rules for controlling truck traffic in the city, which has disrupted much of the complex food distribution arrangements that fed the city’s nearly 26 million residents. Official daily truck passes for entering the city now sell for as much as $2,000 on the black market. The Shanghai police announced on Monday afternoon that they had detained 34 people whom they accused of making fake passes.
Officials around the country are probably eager to avoid the widespread shortages of food and other necessities in Shanghai during that city’s lockdown, which has now lasted around a month. The lockdown forced the city’s economy to grind to a halt and also prevented people with life-threatening illnesses from getting prompt medical care. It has been a source of rising public anger against the government.
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Despite the onerous and costly measures, Shanghai has reported more than 500,000 infections and 190 deaths in this outbreak.
China has held firmly to a strategy of eliminating coronavirus infections in part because the ruling Communist Party has staked its political legitimacy on controlling the virus better than other countries, especially its geopolitical rivals in the West. It is also concerned that many of the country’s oldest residents are unvaccinated, or have not received boosters, making them more vulnerable to severe illness and death.
Beijing is trying to address vaccination hesitancy with increasingly lavish incentives to people willing to accept jabs. One subdistrict in northern Beijing is now offering shopping vouchers worth $150 for residents aged 80 or older who accept a vaccine. And it has promised a scarce Beijing Winter Olympics mascot doll, Bing Dwen Dwen, to each child aged 3 to 5 who gets a shot.
One resident at the supermarket in Beijing who was shopping for groceries on Tuesday said she had faith that the city would quickly contain the outbreak without serious disruptions.
“If Beijing can’t control the epidemic, and the people have nothing to eat, the whole country will be in big trouble,” said Liu Baojuan, a resident of Chaoyang. “I’m not worried; I still trust the government.”
Liu Yi and Li You contributed research.