As Covid Spreads Fast, Beijing Isn’t in Lockdown. But It Feels Like It.

Restaurants have closed because too many staff members have tested positive for Covid. The usually ubiquitous food delivery workers zipping through traffic on their scooters have nearly vanished because of infections. Pharmacies have been emptied of cold medicine, and supermarkets have been running low on the essentials: disinfectant solution, antibacterial wipes, beer.

Less than a week after the Chinese government lifted its stringent “zero Covid” restrictions, Beijing looks like a city in the throes of a lockdown — this time, self-imposed by residents. Sidewalks and pedestrian shopping streets are barren, and once busy traffic thoroughfares are deserted. Residents are hunkering down indoors and hoarding medicine as a wave of Covid sweeps across the Chinese capital.

“No one dares to come out now,” said Yue Jiajun, a Beijing restaurant owner, who initially celebrated when customers were allowed to dine indoors last week only to learn later that the surge in infections would keep them away.

“Even takeaway, I have no customers,” said Mr. Yue, who admitted that there probably weren’t enough delivery drivers for his orders anyway.

All over the city, residents were gripped by the sinking realization that a virus most of the world had already experienced was spreading freely and rapidly for the first time, three years after it emerged. Weibo, China’s popular social media service, was awash with people around the country sharing news of their infections and their personal experiences with Covid.

Outside a pharmacy in Beijing on Sunday. Medicine has become hard to find in the capital. Credit…Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

“Fifty to 60 percent of my relatives and friends have tested positive,” wrote one person on Weibo, a social media site.

Understand What Is Happening in China

  • A Victory for Protesters: Beijing’s costly policy of lockdowns pummeled China’s economy and set off mass public protests that were a rare challenge to its leader, Xi Jinping.
  • A Messy Pivot: The Communist Party cast aside many Covid rules after the protests, while playing down the threat of the virus. The move could prove dangerous.
  • A ‘Tipping Point’: For the protesters, public dissent was unimaginable until recently. We asked young Chinese about what led them to take the risk.
  • Tracking Protesters: The authorities in China used the country’s all-seeing surveillance apparatus to track, intimidate and detain those who marched in the protests.

Liu Qiangdong, the chief executive of the e-commerce site, and Wang Shi, a real estate tycoon, shared on Weibo their experiences about recovering from Covid. A virus-stricken Zhang Lan, the founder of a popular restaurant chain, South Beauty Group, summoned the energy to hawk vitamin supplements and sausage as potential remedies on a livestream.

“I’m here to encourage you,” Ms. Zhang told her viewers. “Adjust your mentality, drink plenty of water. You’ll be fine.”

Medicine has become hard to find, either at hospital clinics or at pharmacies. Many residents complain that the city should have done more to anticipate the Covid outbreak and to stockpile drugs ahead of time.

“The most urgent issue is the shortage of medicine,” said a 25-year-old Beijing resident who gave only his family name, Wang, given the political sensitivity of the issue.

Mr. Wang said that he developed a fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit and a sore throat on Saturday morning and became dizzy. He tested positive for coronavirus on a rapid antigen test at home and went to a fever clinic at a hospital.

“I don’t know if I’m doing it right at home, so I came to the hospital to find out if there are any precautions,” Mr. Wang said, adding that he tried to obtain ibuprofen, a painkiller, and a popular herbal remedy called Lianhua Qingwen that has been the subject of price gouging.

The doctor instead prescribed loxoprofen, a different painkiller, and Ganmao Qingre granules, a less coveted herbal remedy. “Many medicines in great demand are not available now, and I don’t know if other medicines prescribed can have the same effect,” Mr. Wang said.

The line on Sunday for a hospital fever clinic in Beijing. The city has asked people not to call its medical emergency hotline if they were asymptomatic or had only mild cases.Credit…Andy Wong/Associated Press

Vincent Chen said he resorted to begging friends outside Beijing to send him fever medication after he couldn’t find any at his local pharmacies or online. He had to splurge on an express delivery company because ordinary services were either too busy or didn’t have enough staff.

“Couriers are paralyzed,” said Mr. Chen, 35.

Others have caught on. Tutorials are now spreading on Weibo teaching city dwellers how to purchase drugs from pharmacies in the countryside.

The hoarding of remedies isn’t limited to cough medicine and lozenges. Stores are now running out of jarred peaches because they’re believed to be packed with enough nutrients to ward off the virus. The sweet snack is popular in northeastern China for treating cold symptoms, but it now appears to be winning converts elsewhere as people try to gain an edge on the illness. State media has had to weigh in, declaring there’s no proof peaches make a difference.

It wasn’t the only time in the last week the government has had to step in to try to calm a frenzy over an elixir. The State Administration for Market Regulation, a market watchdog, warned producers and retailers about runaway prices after Lianhua Qingwen, the herbal remedy, started selling at more than triple its regular price.

“It is strictly forbidden to drive up prices,” the regulator said on Friday.

Shares of Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical, the maker of Lianhua Qingwen, have jumped more than 20 percent on the Shenzhen stock market since Covid restrictions were relaxed.

The shortages don’t appear to have extended to food. Beijing has repeatedly promised that groceries would remain adequate through the pandemic. The capital, given its political importance, has traditionally had priority for food supplies.

Large piles of oranges, corn, cabbage and other produce were still available at supermarkets in the city that were able to round up enough staff to remain open. The only sections with dwindling inventory were for cleaning products and booze as customers tried to hedge how much time they’d need to stay indoors.

Other businesses aren’t so fortunate as grocery stores. China tried to revitalize its travel industry last week by ending the many restrictions on travel between provinces. But some Beijing hotels have stopped admitting new guests because they have too few staff to look after them.

Workers removed structures last week in a Beijing neighborhood after a lockdown ended. The severity of the capital’s current outbreak is hard to discern, because the mass testing system is being dismantled.Credit…Thomas Peter/Reuters

The severity of Beijing’s outbreak is hard to discern. China’s mass testing system is being dismantled, so the number of infections is unknown. The city recorded 559 confirmed cases and 468 asymptomatic infections on Monday. That’s down from 1,163 confirmed cases and 3,503 asymptomatic infections on Dec. 5, the last day authorities required a negative test to enter public spaces.

Other available data suggests a city experiencing a surge in cases. Li Ang, a spokesman for the Beijing Municipal Health Commission, said at a news conference on Monday that the number of calls for emergency services on Friday was six times higher than normal and that visits to fever clinics had increased 16-fold in a week.

One of the biggest questions is whether China can maintain medical care for people who fall seriously ill with Covid or who have unrelated conditions requiring treatment. Beijing, with some of the country’s best hospitals, has an advantage over rural areas. The city appealed on Saturday for people not to call the medical emergency hotline if they were asymptomatic or had only mild cases.

Several older people leaving a hospital in the Dongcheng district on Saturday said in separate interviews that they had received treatment, including for kidney dialysis and an injured foot.

One of the biggest questions is whether China can maintain medical care for people who fall seriously ill with Covid or who have unrelated conditions requiring treatment. Credit…Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

But a 66-year-old man, complaining about a week of chronic pain at the base of his back, said that he had been turned away because the emergency room was full. The man, who gave only his family name, Gao, given the political sensitivity in discussing China’s pandemic response, said that he would try again later.

“I am still in pain,” he said. “I will come again.”

Li You contributed research.

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