China announced its first COVID deaths since the end of the Shanghai lockdown in May. Beijing municipal health officials reported that three people in the capital died of coronavirus over the weekend. The deaths come amidst China’s largest coronavirus outbreak in months, with provinces across the country reporting thousands of new, mostly asymptomatic cases, and Beijing itself dealing with an outbreak that local officials called “grim.” The widespread outbreaks follow a set of 20 central-government-issued guidelines signaling a relaxation of stringent COVID measures. At CNN, Tara Subramaniam and Nectar Gan reported on the nationwide outbreak and the measures being taken in Beijing and other cities to slow it down:
On Monday, China’s National Health Commission reported two deaths of Covid-19 patients in Beijing for Sunday, following the death of an 87-year-old man in the capital on Saturday.
It comes as the country faces a surge of cases, with 26,824 new infections reported on Sunday, according to the National Health Commission – the highest daily number since mid-April and the sixth consecutive day over 20,000.
[…] In Beijing, schools across several districts moved to online classes on Monday, as authorities reported 962 infections for Sunday, up from 621 from a day earlier. In Chaoyang, the hardest-hit district and home to many international businesses and embassies, the district government urged residents to stay home over the weekend, with numerous restaurants, gyms, beauty salons and other facilities closed. [Source]
All three individuals who died in Beijing were elderly, and it was not announced whether or not they had been vaccinated. Vaccination rates remain low among China’s elderly population, with only 65.7% of those over 80 years old vaccinated, compared with over 90% of those 80 and older in Singapore, and 90% of those 75 and older in the United States. Beijing instituted a limited vaccine mandate earlier this year that required proof of vaccination for admission to certain public venues. Jin Dongyan at the University of Hong Kong told the South China Morning Post: “If several million elderly people above 80 years of age have not been vaccinated, it will pose a potential risk. […] The most important point is public education. […] Many people’s understanding of Covid still remains at the level of the initial  outbreak in Wuhan.”
The Beijing outbreak is centered in Chaoyang District, a populous district in the city’s northeast. City officials urged Chaoyang residents to stay home, while some residents reported they had been required to take daily COVID tests. The Omicron BF.7 subvariant has fueled clusters of infections in nursing homes, construction sites, and schools. At The Wall Street Journal, Stella Yifan Xie reported on how Beijing’s tightening COVID controls have upended daily life for local residents:
In Beijing, Li Xiangxue, a 46-year-old editor at a publisher, cut back spending on travel this year as her income fell and she fretted about being caught up in a sudden Covid lockdown—an increasingly common experience in China.
After a shopper in a mall where Ms. Li and her two daughters recently shared a meal was identified as a Covid-positive case, her family was ordered to remain at home for five days. She now regrets having taken the risk of eating out and has vowed not to do so again until the spring.
“After cooking and taking care of the children for a week, I was thinking of treating us to a good meal in a restaurant. Unexpectedly, it made things worse,” said Ms. Li. “I won’t do that again.” [Source]
My building in Beijing has just been sealed and I’m in lockdown for the next seven days because of a Covid case 8 floors above me. I suppose I should be thankful that I get to stay at home because if this had happened months ago, I’d be taken into centralised quarantine.
— Dawn Wei Tan (@dawn_wei_tan) November 21, 2022
A number of those outside Beijing have found themselves unable to return to the city due to a “pop-up window” on the Beijing “Health Kit” app which governs residents’ access to public spaces. In early November, the octogenarian daughter of an esteemed revolutionary who once sat on the Politburo Standing Committee was censored on WeChat after she wrote an essay mildly critical of the “pop-up windows.” Since then, public complaints have only increased due to the proliferation of health app “pop-up windows,” as reported by Catherine Wong of The South China Morning Post:
Zhou Xiaoping, one of China’s most prominent nationalist bloggers, recently sparked heated discussion by highlighting the confusion stemming from the country’s pandemic restrictions.
“If you return from the US, where the epidemic is most serious, you only need to be quarantined for seven days before you can return home,” he said in a post on Sina Weibo – China’s answer to Twitter – that was later removed. “But if you go to a border province in China, where the epidemic is less serious, you may not be able to return home even after having waited for 70 days.”
[…] “Dynamic zero-Covid is still the overall goal. It is natural for major cities like Beijing to be stricter with the rules because of the population density. An outbreak could easily happen and would create immense pressure on our hospitals and health services,” [said Zhou Zijun, a public health expert at Peking University.] [Source]
Beijing is not the only city tightening COVID restrictions. Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, instituted a lockdown in a district home to 3.7 million people on Monday, after the province reported over 9,000 new cases. A Guangzhou-based medical expert told Chinese state media that the city’s case numbers were likely to continue to surge, and that in the most optimistic scenario, the city might be able to control its outbreak within two months. Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province, announced a soft lockdown and five consecutive days of mass testing for the virus after reporting 639 new asymptomatic infections on Sunday. Families can send one person per day to procure daily necessities if said person has a negative test result within 24 hours and a certificate attesting that they have taken a test on the same day. All schooling in the city was also moved online. Shijiazhuang had earlier been viewed as a testing ground for the rollback of zero-COVID measures. At The Guardian, Verna Yu interviewed an expert who held that predictions of China seriously relaxing its zero-COVID measures are premature, due to the nature of provincial politics:
Johnny Lau, an independent political commentator on Chinese politics, said he could not see how the restrictions would be relaxed in reality, as China’s top-down power structure and political culture means local officials would not refrain from overstrict implementation of virus control policies to avoid being blamed for cases surging.
He noted that after the announcement, many cities have even stepped up restrictions.
“They would rather be too strict than to shoulder the blame. The enforcers need to strictly implement [zero Covid] policies to keep their jobs and to remain politically correct; they won’t care about the impact on the population,” he said. “So even when the policy-makers say they are easing measures, they won’t relax in reality.” [Source]
Police refused to release the driver until he gave them details of what we were doing and who we were speaking to.
This isn’t an isolated incident. Last week our driver in another city was also questioned by police and received a call from the local national security office.
— Leo Lord-Jones (@leolordjones) November 21, 2022
2. That’s why they’re proceeding cautiously despite the deepening impact of the Covid-19 policies. If we compare to the early days of opening up and reform, China could take an approach of “one step forward and two steps backward”, or “Two steps forward and one step backward”.
— Keith Zhai (@KeithZhai) November 21, 2022