Parts of Beijing are back on a “wartime” footing after a cluster of locally transmitted coronavirus cases emerged, nearly two months after the Chinese capital appeared to have stamped out the virus.
The outbreak, linked to a major wholesale food market, raised serious questions about the challenges of keeping the disease at bay, even in countries such as China where authoritarian rule allows harsh containment regulations and invasive tracing systems.
The first case in the new outbreak was discovered on Thursday after a 52-year old man tested positive, prompting the district where he lives to raise its risk level to “medium”.
Before that, Beijing had gone 55 days in which the only new infections were citizens returning from other countries. The city had largely returned to normal life, with restaurants and shops opening and daily rush hour traffic resuming.
As it became clear that there were dozens of cases, mostly linked to the Xinfadi food market, there was an abrupt reversal. Southern Fengtai district, where the market is located, has more than 2 million residents. “Wartime emergency” measures have been imposed, shutting 11 residential compounds and several schools near the market.
Across the capital movement restrictions were brought back, sports events suspended, tourism from other parts of the country barred, and plans to reopen primary schools put on hold.
The new infections sparked a panic about salmon, which was pulled from supermarkets around the country after cutting boards used to prepare imported salmon were among surfaces that tested positive for the virus – although fish cannot be infected by coronavirus.
On Saturday six new domestic infections were reported: three workers at the Xinfadi market, two people who visited and a work colleague of one of those visitors.
Mass testing of hundreds of people working at the Xinfadi market uncovered a further 45 asymptomatic cases. The market claims to be the largest wholesale agricultural market in Asia, and Beijing News reported that the market supplies nearly 90% of the city’s fruit and vegetables.tT
Officials have quarantined 139 close contacts of people infected. The marketi s closed and surrounded by military and police on 24-hour watch. More than 10,000 people who work there will now be tested for the disease.
“In accordance with the principle of putting the safety of the masses and health first, we have adopted lockdown measures for the Xinfadi market and surrounding neighbourhoods,” said Chu Junwei, a district official,g. The district is in a “wartime emergency mode”, he added.
Underlining government concerns, volunteers on Saturday were going door to door in distant parts of the city asking if anyone had visited the Xinfadi market recently. There will be mass testing of anyone who has been there since the end of May.