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Beijing balances COVID risk and fatigue in beating latest wave

City's alert level lowered as other countries rethink reopenings

Pedestrians walk in Beijing's central business district on July 16, after days of zero recorded coronavirus infections.    © Reuters

BEIJING -- A month after a second coronavirus wave hit Beijing, the city has boomeranged back to zero cases for two weeks. Its apparent success may be instructive about what measures can work -- and what Chinese officials think weary urban citizens are willing to endure.

On Sunday, the authorities announced that the city's alert would be lowered the next day from Level II to III, state media reported. This will enable a range of entertainment facilities to gradually reopen, and allow events with up to 500 people. Only one area of the city was still deemed a "medium" risk.

The latest flurry of infections, linked to a wholesale food market in southern Beijing, started in mid-June and broke a nearly two-month streak of no local transmissions. Fearful that the virus would sweep the capital, officials wasted no time shutting schools and imposing movement restrictions in certain areas. Yet, they stopped well short of anything like the closure of Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic, or even the late-June lockdown of 400,000 people in Hebei Province neighboring Beijing.

Instead, the capital city of 21 million was partitioned off by the level of risk and mass testing centers sprang up overnight, with health workers testing millions in rapid succession. This response proved to be enough to stop the new case count at 335, at least for the time being.

The decision to adopt a less-strict lockdown strategy was likely due, in part, to the Chinese government's understanding of people's threshold after nearly six months of living with the pandemic, said Lynette Ong, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. "When people are fighting wars, I think people are more willing to accept coercive measures," she said. "But you can't put people in a war mode over a prolonged period of time."

Workers disinfect a coronavirus testing site in Beijing in late June.   © Reuters

As the coronavirus has spread around the world, the recipe for success in quashing outbreaks has proven to be one-part policy and one-part public trust. Indeed, Beijingers appeared convinced that officials had the situation in hand this time. "People are more confident than the first time because [initially] we knew nothing about the virus," said Qing Feng, the CEO of an international travel company in Beijing.

That is not to say Qing and others went through the second wave unscathed. But while COVID-19 tanked his tourism business after China shut its borders to travelers, the fallout from the second outbreak has been less pronounced, with authorities relying on more subtle forms of control to avoid a bigger spike of infections.

Qing's gym closed again, and all but one of the gates to his compound blocked exit and entry. Some apartment blocks near the market were sealed off completely, and other low- and medium-risk areas restricted entry to deliveries and outside visitors.

When the outbreak was detected, airlines scrapped flights, and the government advised against non-essential travel. Anyone who wanted to leave the capital first had to get tested for the virus. Capacity at hospitals and third-party testing centers -- places qualified to provide the negative test results required to exit -- were overloaded and appointments backlogged for days or weeks at some locations.

Still, unlike earlier this year when people fled public spaces, many continued to move about the city, flashing green on health applications on their phones for clearance to enter restaurants and businesses.

There was still some confusion. At a community testing site in north-central Beijing last month, one man did not know that such testing centers could not provide the negative test results that would allow people to travel outside the city. When asked whether they were aware of obstacles for getting the required tests, some in the queue said they were not. Others described how they had received notices from their communities about when and where mandatory tests would be conducted, but little other information.

In any case, another young woman did not sound concerned.

"The government already did something to solve the problem so I'm not really worried about that," Hannah, 20, a college student in Suzhou who asked to be identified by her English name, said of the outbreak.

That was just the message the authorities were hoping to deliver.

A restaurant in Beijing on June 22: Despite the new outbreak, residents were still able to move about the city.   © Reuters

President Xi Jinping never publicly addressed Beijing's outbreak, and health officials were quick to declare it contained. "The epidemic in Beijing has been brought under control," Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a press conference in June.

All of this stands in contrast to the reaction to new cases in Hebei. Authorities at the end of June said the county of Anxin could be "fully enclosed." Except for essential workers, all residents were ordered to stay home, with one household member allowed to shop for necessities each day. A similarly strict approach was used earlier in places like Harbin, Shulan, and Suifenhe in northeast China, where authorities also sealed off transport to and from neighboring Russia.

Not only is Beijing reluctant to put another chokehold on its economy, it apparently also calculated how much -- or how little -- citizens in the capital will tolerate and comply with strict lockdown measures versus their counterparts in other parts of the country.

Some experts suggest the carefully calibrated measures could offer a road map as other countries grapple with new COVID-19 waves of their own and either pause or reverse plans to reopen economies. From parts of Australia to some U.S. states and elsewhere, restrictions have been reintroduced much to the frustration of citizens.

Ong at the University of Toronto said the evolution of Beijing's approach echoes the feeling from societies around the world that are becoming less apt to comply with stringent governmental COVID-19 controls as the pandemic drags on.

"In most societies, that is just not practical," she said. "People will rebel."

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