A health worker wearing a protective suit takes a swab test from a man to test for the COVID-19 coronavirus at a testing site in Beijing on June 18, 2020. Picture: STR / AFP
A health worker wearing a protective suit takes a swab test from a man to test for the COVID-19 coronavirus at a testing site in Beijing on June 18, 2020. Picture: STR / AFP

Tokyo/Beijing/Shanghai — Beijing resident Valentina Xiang will graduate from eight years of medical school in June with little fanfare, after a fresh coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese capital put an end to all her celebration plans.

“This is a tragic year,” said the 26-year-old, who is also preparing to postpone her wedding, scheduled for October, for a second time. “I don’t even want to think about it. The only plan for the rest of year is staying at home.”

The new cluster of infections, which emerged after a lull of nearly two months, has grown to more than 150 infections in less than a week and spread to at least four other provinces. While the daily count of new cases is slowing from previous days, health officials have warned that the outbreak is expected to continue growing.

The city has ramped up containment measures — cancelling flights, closing schools and restricting residential compounds — though the actions so far aren’t as harsh as those taken recently to control smaller flare-ups in other parts of the country. But the impact on daily life is already keenly felt, along with anxiety that restrictions could quickly escalate to the same level implemented during the height of China’s epidemic.

Activity in the city has slowed considerably as residents fear the spread of infection. According to data published by social network Weibo, daily passenger counts on the subway fell sharply this week after increasing steadily since volumes fell sharply during the initial outbreak. That’s a reminder that the nation’s economic recovery remains vulnerable to setbacks until the virus is eradicated.

While Beijing has avoided a citywide lockdown, movement has been restricted in areas where cases have been detected. Multiple markets have been shut down as infections were found, with strict restrictions implemented in nearby residential compounds.

Jerry Wang lives in one of those compounds, close to the Yuquandong market in Beijing’s Haidian district where a case was found on June 13. Residents were told as early as Saturday that they’re not allowed to leave the complex without certain permits from their employers.

‘Farewell to back-to-normal life’

“We are saying farewell again to the back-to-normal life we have been enjoying in the past month,” said the primary school teacher. “Even if the bars and gyms are not yet closed, I can hardly find a friend who’s willing to join me. I’m now fully mentally prepared to stay at home for the rest of 2020.”

The resurgence is shaping up to be a sobering warning to other nations about the difficulty of eradicating the pathogen that has infected more than 8.3-million people worldwide. Japan has also seen a flare-up of new cases in its capital of Tokyo, while New Zealand’s brief period of being virus-free was interrupted this week by travellers who were improperly quarantined. In the US, states such as Texas and Arizona are reporting record-high new infections.

The source of Beijing’s outbreak remains unclear, though Chinese officials have indicated they think it came from Europe. Salmon is being boycotted in China after the virus was traced to the chopping board of a vendor selling the imported seafood and authorities are testing some food imports before allowing them in the country. Scientists say  there’s no evidence that food can transmit the pathogen.

Some residents are taking a more relaxed approach with the view that the virus is here to stay.

Yu Le visited the Xinfadi market where the first case was discovered last week on June 3 and bought salmon, which he continues to consume. He and his family, who live 3km from the market, were tested on Monday but haven’t received their results because of the surge in tests that have to be processed.

“I think the experts’ advice that we have to be prepared to coexist with the virus for a long time is indeed correct,” said the 39-year-old media professional. “Overly panicking or ignoring the problem should both be avoided.”

The city has embarked on an aggressive contact tracing and mass testing campaign to track down infections and isolate residents who are at risk. Volunteers began knocking on doors over the weekend, and many companies have also asked employees to report if they’d been to areas where cases have been found.

Authorities on Wednesday said they had tested about 356,000 individuals since June 13 and planned to test another 355,000 on Wednesday. So far, 158 confirmed cases have been detected.

“This is a ‘back to where we started’ kind of feeling,” said Olivia Li, a 58-year-old engineer who works for a state-owned enterprise, adding that the shutdown of markets that provide the vast majority of the city’s food supplies is also worrying. “I think it’s more severe this time because it’s happening in the capital city of Beijing.”

Officials are grappling with striking a balance between containment and keeping the economy running in the city of more than 20-million, where the country’s business and political elite reside. An across-the-board lockdown risks undoing some of China’s economic reopening and could also undermine confidence in the government’s ability to handle the pandemic.

For foreigners, the prospects of being able to travel home or return to the city have again dimmed after signs that China was beginning to ease restrictions with some countries. Hundreds more flights in and out of Beijing were cancelled on Thursday, according to the websites of the city’s airports.

Beijing also tightened outbound travel further, saying people who have confirmed infections, are suspected cases, or had been in close contact with patients or people with fevers were banned from leaving the city. Residents in medium- and high-risk areas are also barred from leaving.

Laurent Capt, vice-president of China Rise Financial Holding Investment, said his company has cancelled all business trips and he’s anticipating he’ll spend the year-end holidays in Beijing.

The question isn’t when the latest outbreak will end, he said, but rather “it’s about a new lifestyle, to face with more comfort this type of crisis”.