Apr 27, 2022 - World

Beijing braces for COVID lockdown with mass testing and panic buying

Illustration of a red alarm bell with a covid virus cell in the center
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Beijing is bracing for a potential lockdown in the face of a new COVID outbreak. Residents are stocking up on supplies, and authorities have ordered 20 million people to take three mandatory tests this week.

Why it matters: Sticking with President Xi Jinping's zero-COVID strategy effectively means leaving the entire country indefinitely on the edge of lockdown.

Between the lines: Xi is so personally tied to the zero-COVID approach — which he publicly defended last week— that some experts think he simply can’t be seen to abandon it.

Driving the news: Shanghai's brutal lockdown is shaping the way officials and ordinary citizens in Beijing are responding to rising COVID infections.

  • A month into Shanghai's lockdown, which has seen severe shortages of food and heartbreaking scenes such as parents being separated from their COVID-positive children, authorities in China's financial capital are erecting fences to pen residents inside their buildings.
  • Beijing isn't under lockdown yet, but officials seem to have taken lessons from the chaos in Shanghai. They're starting mass testing much earlier and allowing truckers to move supplies, per the NYT.
  • Still, residents aren't taking their chances. One woman in Beijing told WSJ she had purchased a freezer over the weekend and filled it with enough to feed her family of five for three months.

Where it stands: According to the official count, the Chinese capital has only reported around two dozen new cases on each of the past three days. Such numbers are a rounding error in any major U.S. city, but China's zero-COVID strategy makes them a bona fide emergency.

  • The effectiveness of zero-COVID in China, in contrast to rampant outbreaks in the West, has been a crucial narrative for the Communist Party and Xi.
  • But more contagious variants mean outbreaks are now being detected in cities all over the country, all at once. More than 70 cities have faced some form of lockdown since mid-March.

Details: China’s vaccines are less effective than western mRNA vaccines, and 41% of people over 60 have not had the recommended three doses. Plus, zero-COVID has limited exposure to the virus, so few Chinese residents have natural immunity.

  • That all makes uncontrolled outbreaks all the more likely.

What they're saying: While the lockdown in Shanghai might be more significant economically, the prospect of such a clampdown in the capital is sensitive for the government — particularly as Xi prepares to break with recent custom and extend his rule for a third term later this year.

  • "The city should have all sorts of contingency planning that was done for the Olympics that can be applied now. Any longer lockdown, especially if handled as poorly as Shanghai's, could be an economic and political disaster," Bill Bishop writes in his Sinocism newsletter.

What's next: As the rest of the world learns to live with the virus, it may also have to learn to live with the ripple effects of China's very different approach on supply chains and economic growth.

  • The IMF slashed its growth projections for China last week.
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