Authorities in Beijing are on high alert for a surge in coronavirus cases amid a fresh outcry in Shanghai over buildings blockaded under China’s zero Covid policy.
The number of new cases in the capital rose by 22 on Sunday – all locally transmitted – compared with six the day before, according to official reports. Beijing authorities have so far not taken steps to lock down the capital, but they have ordered a number of gyms and after-school activity providers to suspend in-person classes.
Residents rushed to stockpile food amid rumours of tougher measures in the coming days.
Health official Pang Xinghuo said preliminary observations suggested Covid had been “spreading invisibly” within the capital for a week, affecting “schools, tour groups and many families”.
“The risk of continued and hidden transmission is high, and the situation is grim,” Tian Wei of Beijing’s municipal party committee told a press briefing. “The whole city of Beijing must act immediately.”
The outbreak in Beijing came as Mainland China’s most crucial financial hub, Shanghai, enters its fourth week of city-wide lockdown. Thirty-nine new deaths were reported on Sunday, compared with 12 the previous day and by far the most during the current outbreak.
As the situation did not seem to have improved following three weeks of stringent lockdown in Shanghai, desperate officials erected mesh barriers outside some residential buildings on Saturday. This move – described in the official directive “hard isolation” – sparked a fresh public outcry over a lockdown that has forced many of the city’s 25 million people to stay home.
Images of white hazmat suit-clad workers sealing entrances of housing blocks and even closing off entire streets with 2-metre-tall green fencing went viral on social media on Saturday, prompting questions and complaints from residents.
“Isn’t this a fire hazard?” said one user on the social media platform Weibo. “This is so disrespectful of the rights of the people inside, using metal barriers to enclose them like domestic animals,” said another.
Most of the barriers appeared to have been erected around compounds designated as “sealed areas”, which are buildings where at least one person has tested positive for Covid and so its residents are forbidden from leaving their front doors.
The move from the local government, as some Shanghai residents pointed out, appeared to have contradicted an earlier advisory from China’s top legislative body that was issued during the first round of Covid outbreak in March 2020.
In that advisory, as was reported by state news agency, Xinhua, a spokesperson at the Legislative Affairs Commission of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress said that measures to enforce “hard isolation” were “illegal” and “unreasonable”.
The Shanghai government did not respond to a request for comment.
In the past three weeks, the lockdown in Shanghai has fuelled frustration over difficulties accessing food and medical care as well as over lost wages, family separation, conditions at quarantine centres and censorship of efforts to vent online.
It has also exacted a toll on the world’s second-largest economy, with factory efforts to resume production disrupted by snarled supply chains and difficulties faced by locked-down residents returning to work.
Authorities did not report any deaths from Covid during the first few weeks of its latest case surge, fuelling doubt among residents about the figures. It has since reported 87 fatalities from the virus, all in the past seven days.
New case numbers fell slightly for Saturday, but remained in the tens of thousands. Shanghai recorded 19,657 new local asymptomatic cases, down from 20,634 a day earlier, and 1,401 symptomatic cases, down from 2,736.
Nationwide, China reported 20,285 new asymptomatic coronavirus cases for Saturday, down from 21,423 a day earlier, with 1,580 symptomatic cases, down from 2,988.
With Reuters and Agence France-Presse