Back in February Chinese President Xi Jinping gave strict orders that Beijing be protected from the coronavirus. “The security and stability of the capital city have a direct bearing on the overall work of the Party and the country,” hesaid in a nationwide video conference call with Party cadres.
Four months later the “fortress” he advocated has cracked – nearly 200 people in the city have tested positive for the virus in the past week. Prior to the new outbreak, which was detected on June 11, China’s capital had gone 56 days without a locally transmitted case. In the first wave of infection only 420 people tested positive for the virus, resulting in only nine Covid-19 deaths.
The sudden outbreak comes as China has tried to argue that its style of government is better placed than others to deal with disasters of this kind. This week Xi helped cement that narrative by hosting an e-summit with African leaders in which he pledged that they would be among the first to benefit once China had developed a vaccine.
The Beijing city government has moved quickly to contain transmission, limiting inbound and outbound travel. Recently reopened schools were closed once again. Other measures include reducing passenger density on public transport and completely quarantining “cluster” communities.
The wholesale market at the centre of the outbreak, Xinfadi, was closed for disinfection and the Beijing government ordered all businesses operating in “cold, damp, underground” premises to close in a nod to the fact that the virus spreads faster in such conditions.
Xinfadi is one of Asia largest markets, supplying Beijing with as much as 80% of its food. It employs over 10,000 workers and attracts people from across the 21 million person city because of its low prices.
So far most of the cases in the outbreak can be traced back to Xinfadi, though experts say the virus was probably circulating in Beijing up to a month before that.
So where did the latest outbreak come from?
At first officials pointed the finger at imported salmon as the source, with state media outlets reporting that traces of the coronavirus were discovered on chopping boards that came into contact with the imported salmon in Xinfadi.
The Chinese CDC (the health body responsible for disease prevention) later explained it could not be determined that salmon was the source of the spread. However, supermarkets and restaurants across Beijing hurried to pull salmon from their shelves and menus. Salmon imports from Europe are reportedly banned as well. Adding to the anxiety, local experts who have analysed the virus strain that emerged in Xinfadi say it is most similar to the variation that took hold in Europe in March and April, suggesting that this current outbreak is a result of reinfection from overseas.
China currently requires anyone returning from abroad to undergo 14 days of quarantine either at home (under supervision) or in government-run facilities. Until this recent outbreak almost all new cases in China were “imported”, and were detected as people were tested on arrival.
China as a whole had notched up 13 days without detecting a new locally-transmitted case but on June 6 a woman who travelled to Hainan from Hubei tested positive.
Officials have said they are likely to toughen entry requirements for those coming to China given the likely provenance of the new outbreak. Already most incoming flights have been cancelled and embassies are reporting that planned flights to bring back foreign diplomatic staff and their families are also being put on hold.
The capital hasn’t managed to contain the new outbreak entirely. In recent days Liaoning, Sichuan, Zhejiang and Hebei have all reported new cases, tracing the infection back to a Beijing connection.
This is a “cunning” virus, the People’s Daily wrote this week, but it also advised that the possibility of a massive outbreak in Beijing “basically doesn’t exist”. It counselled: “Don’t be too panicked by the occasional flare-up.”
Still, other countries readying to reboot their economies will be watching the situation in Beijing closely.
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