By Eduardo Baptista and Brenda Goh
BEIJING/SHANGHAI -Three-quarters of Beijing’s 22 million people lined up for COVID-19 tests on Tuesday as authorities in the Chinese capital raced to stamp out a nascent outbreak and avert the debilitating city-wide lockdown that has shrouded Shanghai for a month.
Having seen the struggles of China’s commercial hub to meet the basic needs of its increasingly frustrated 25 million residents, people in Beijing were stocking up on food and supplies.
Videos on social media showed people leaning out of Shanghai windows to beat pots and pans in anger, or play “Do you hear the people sing?”, a protest anthem from the musical “Les Miserables”, on flutes and trumpets.
Beijing hoped to avoid such drama by acting swiftly.
It began tests in its most populous district Chaoyang on Monday morning. By nighttime, authorities listed 10 other districts and one economic development zone for mandatory tests this week, covering a total of 20 million people of which 16 million were scheduled to be screened on Tuesday.
The orders come days after dozens of infections were found. Shanghai waited for about a month and more than 1,000 cases before launching city-wide testing in early April.
Liu Wentao, a Beijing cook, said he was concerned about the new outbreak, but was confident the capital could handle it.
“The virus controls are stronger than in other places, I don’t think it will be like Shanghai,” he said on his way to get tested.
Beijing recorded 33 new COVID cases for April 25, up from 19 the day before with no deaths reported so far in the outbreak. The total case load is miniscule compared with hundreds of thousands in Shanghai.
Shanghai reported 52 new COVID deaths on Tuesday, up from 51 the day before. That takes the official death toll to 190, all reported from April 17 onwards, although many residents have said relatives or friends died after catching COVID as early as March, casting doubt over the statistics.
In the capital, schools, stores and offices remained open, but the iconic Lama temple would be closed to tourists from Wednesday, while Beijing’s National Theater would close for the rest of the month.
Officials have urged residents to refrain from leaving the capital and avoid gatherings for the upcoming April 30-May 4 Labour Day holidays.
Concerns about the economy echoed among residents, businesses and financial markets, with Chinese stocks, lingering near two-year lows.
“If we can’t go to work, there will be no income,” said Dewei, 31, who worked at a small Chaoyang gym.
The economic fallout from any lockdown in Beijing is likely to be less severe than that on manufacturing powerhouse Shanghai, a key cog in national and global supply chains.
“In Beijing, I think it has less impact on businesses because most of these positions can be done from home,” Beijing-based Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce, told Reuters.
“There is less trucking involved, there is less packaging involved, there is less production going on.”
Hwabao Trust economist Nie Wen estimated a twin Beijing-Shanghai lockdown may trim one percentage point of China’s economic output in the second quarter.
That would add to geopolitical and property market headwinds during a key year for President Xi Jinping, widely expected to seek a third leadership term.
“The political implications of sealing off the capital of China would be profound,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank, referring to international reputation and social stability risks.
In Shanghai, strict enforcement of measures continued, but plans for a city-wide PCR testing exercise were somewhat derailed by initial forecasts of hail and thunderstorm, later downgraded to cloudy conditions.
While authorities say they have relaxed some curbs, most people are still either confined to their homes or cannot leave their residential compounds. Even those who can go out have few options, with shops and most other venues closed.
In areas where leaving home is allowed, residents were asked to take rapid antigen tests on their own, rather than line up for PCR testing in the rain. In the rest of Shanghai, daily PCR tests remained mandatory.
The prolonged lockdown has fuelled frustration over lost wages, family separation and quarantine conditions, as well as access to medical care and food, with residents struggling to dispose of trash and make basic errands.
The Shanghai government did not immediately comment on signs of growing discontent.
Asymptomatic and symptomatic new cases dropped slightly to 15,319 and 1,661, respectively, while cases outside quarantined areas were flat at 217. Other cities that have been under lockdown began easing restrictions once such cases hit zero.