Beijing has reopened a mass isolation centre as authorities seek to contain an outbreak of Covid-19 in the city.
The Xiaotangshan Fangcai hospital, which holds at least 1,200 beds and testing facilities, was first opened during the 2003 Sars epidemic, and used again in early 2020 to treat Covid patients. Its reopening signals a ramp up in efforts by China’s capital to manage the rising number of cases without going into a city-wide lockdown.
On Wednesday, China reported 5,489 cases, including 353 symptomatic. Most (4,982) were in Shanghai, which has been under a weeks-long lockdown sparking widespread complaints and protests over food shortages and overzealous enforcement. Beijing reported 46 symptomatic cases and five asymptomatic on Wednesday, bringing the city’s total since the start of its Omicron outbreak to about 400.
As Shanghai’s case numbers soared into the thousands, authorities raced to identify and isolate every case, regardless of severity. Hundreds of thousands were transferred to temporary hospitals, requisitioned office buildings and residential blocks, and repurposed convention centres. Conditions in some facilities prompted complaints, with bright lights 24/7, limited water and unsanitary conditions.
In a statement the Beijing Municipal Health Commission said it had reopened the Xiaotangshan hospital as a precaution, describing the battle against the Omicron spread as a chess game. It said one isolation unit was already operating, with 40 medical personnel treating 12 people with asymptomatic or mild cases.
Ahead of the five-day May Day holiday, authorities last week imposed some community-specific lockdowns, movement restrictions, and closed entertainment and public venues, including Universal Beijing Resort. Restaurants have been banned from offering dine-in services, and on Wednesday the city announced dozens of underground train stations and more than 150 bus routes would be closed from midnight. It is running frequent mass testings of millions of residents, with 12 of the 16 Beijing districts conducting the second of three rounds this week, having done three mass screenings last week.
Cases are being recorded across multiple cities and provinces in China, with hundreds of millions of people under some form of full or partial lockdown. In Henan province, the city of Zhengzhou announced movement restrictions from 4-10 May, including remote schooling and some working from home. Henan reported 12 symptomatic and 38 asymptomatic cases on Wednesday.
China’s Communist party government has committed to a zero-Covid policy, which analysts say is now so entrenched in politics there is no sign of a way out. Currently, health authorities have said China cannot reopen as its vaccination rates – especially among elderly people – are too low, and the country’s distribution of health resources inequitable. However, the more transmissible strain of Omicron has challenged the zero-Covid playbook. Beijing authorities appear to be hoping they acted early enough to avoid a Shanghai-style crisis.
The lockdown in Shanghai has begun to lift in some areas, but most people remain unable to leave their housing compounds. Residents have reported numerous cases of overzealous or incompetent action by health workers. Viral videos on social media this week have shown protective suit-wearing workers kicking down the door of a home where the residents said they were still waiting for a test result. A video of mortuary workers collecting the body of an aged care home resident who had been declared dead, but discovering they were still alive, also sparked alarm.
There have also been major concerns over the way deaths are reported, with the official toll far lower than believed. The low reporting is due to China’s strict regulations on attributing Covid-19 as a cause of death when there are other factors, but the reporting of some fatalities has caused confusion.
The zero-Covid policy is also hurting domestic consumption and factory output, disrupting key global supply chains and shrinking revenues for some of the biggest international brands, such as Apple, Gucci-parent Kering and Taco Bell-owner Yum China.
Capital Economics estimates the virus has spread to areas generating 40% of China’s output and 80% of its exports – all facing various degrees of restrictions.