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June 17, 2020

CHINA: Beijing outbreak tests effectiveness of half measures

BY Gabriel Wildau

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( 4 mins)
  • Beijing has reported 137 new Covid-19 cases since 12 June, following 50 days of no new local cases.
  • The latest incident will offer a test of whether partial lockdown measures can succeed in containing localized outbreaks.
  • State media have suggested a link to imported salmon, causing supermarkets to remove imported fish and meat from shelves.

The city of Beijing has partially re-imposed lockdown measures after a new Covid-19 outbreak has produced 137 new cases since 12 June, following 50 consecutive days of no new local transmission in the city. But city authorities have stopped short of a citywide shutdown, offering a test of whether partial measures can be effective against localized secondary outbreaks.

The latest outbreak has been traced to the Xinfadi wholesale food market in southwest Beijing. Authorities have tested more than 350,000 residents linked to the market in recent days and quarantined 8,000 staff from Xinfadi. At least 29 apartment blocks near the market are on full lockdown, and all schools in the city are shut down. Other apartment compounds are re-imposing temperature checks and restricting entry to residents.

More than half of all flights and trains to and from the city have been canceled. The city government has instructed residents to avoid non-essential travel outside the city, and those determined to travel must show a negative Covid-19 test result obtained within the last week. Cities and provinces around China are imposing quarantine and monitoring requirements on travelers from Beijing. Cases linked to the Xinfadi cluster have been identified in four other provinces: Hebei, which borders Beijing, as well as the farther-flung provinces of Liaoning, Sichuan, and Zhejiang. Tour groups from outside the city are banned, and sporting events are canceled.

Even as China gradually eased nationwide lockdown measures in March and April, authorities maintained stricter measures in Beijing, reflecting the city’s special status. But the latest measures are less comprehensive than those enforced at the height of China’s nationwide outbreak in February. Manufacturing businesses can continue to operate, and remote or flexible working arrangements are encouraged but not required. Beijing raised its citywide emergency response to level 2, the second-highest level, while imposing stricter measures on selected neighborhoods. The city has designated 27 neighborhoods as medium risk, while the neighborhood immediately surrounding Xinfadi is designated as high risk. Residents of medium- or high-risk neighborhoods are forbidden to leave the city.

Political fallout from the Beijing outbreak has so far been limited to the city’s Fengtai district, where two district-level officials were fired. The city’s top official, Communist Party Secretary Cai Qi, struck a somber tone at a meeting of city leaders on 16 June, saying the outbreak “has truly rung an alarm bell for us” and calling the situation “extremely grave.” Cai is a member of China’s 25-member Politburo and a close ally of President Xi Jinping, but if Cai is blamed for mishandling the outbreak in Beijing, the blemish on his record could hamper his ability to win a seat on the elite seven-member Politburo Standing Committee at the next party congress in 2022.

Some state media have suggested that the Xinfadi outbreak is linked to imported salmon sold at the market. A senior official from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said there was no evidence of such a link, but the claim has been widely discussed on Chinese social media, prompting Beijing supermarkets to remove imported fish and meat from shelves. Media reports say that Chinese importers have halted fish and meat purchases, and provincial governments have increased inspections, though the government has not issued an official ban.

Even if not supported by science, a severe food safety scare could threaten the US-China phase 1 trade deal, which requires that China raise agricultural imports from the US — including meat and seafood — by a combined USD 32bn in 2020-21 compared to the 2017 baseline. US meatpacking facilities have experienced severe Covid-19 outbreaks. Even if these outbreaks do not significantly hamper US production, Chinese safety concerns could reduce demand for US meat and seafood.

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