BEIJING (AP) — Residents in some parts of the Chinese capital emptied supermarket shelves and overwhelmed delivery apps on Friday as the city government ordered the faster construction of COVID-19 quarantine centers and field hospitals.
Uncertainty and isolated, unconfirmed reports of lockdowns in at least some Beijing counties have fueled demand for food and other supplies, not seen in the city for months.
Unusual numbers of shoppers in the city’s northern suburbs left shelves empty at markets, but shoppers were relatively few in the center of the city of 21 million, where supplies were plentiful.
Daily cases of COVID-19 across the country are hitting records, with 32,695 reported Friday. Of these, 1,860 were in Beijing, most of them asymptomatic.
Makeshift quarantine centers and field hospitals hastily erected in gymnasiums, exhibition centers and other large, open indoor spaces are notorious for overcrowding, poor sanitation, scarce food supplies and 24-hour light.
Most of the city’s residents have already been advised not to leave their properties, some of which are fenced off. At the entrances, workers dressed in head-to-toe white hazmat suits stop unauthorized people and ensure residents have a recent negative COVID-19 test result on their cellphone health apps to gain access.
Several college campuses have been closed and students in the lower grades have been switched to online classes.
Meanwhile, some food delivery services in Beijing have reached their capacity limit.
Rising demand coupled with a labor shortage meant some customers were unable to book delivery appointments for groceries and supplies from popular online grocery services like Alibaba’s Freshippo and Meituan Maicai on Friday.
Online, some Chinese users said some delivery drivers could not work because their connections were blocked. The reports could not be verified.
Alibaba did not immediately comment.
At a news conference on Friday afternoon, city government spokesman Xu Hejian said there was a need to strengthen “the management and service guarantee” of quarantine centers and field hospitals that house people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or who are in close contact with a infected person were taken over by the police.
Authorities must “further accelerate” its construction and “coordinate the allocation of space, facilities, materials, personnel and other resources,” Xu said.
Officials have repeatedly insisted in recent days that China must stick to its tough “zero-COVID” policy which mandates lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines for anyone suspected of having come into contact with the virus. Politics are understood to be taking a harsh toll on the economy and turning life upside down in many Chinese cities, prompting the World Health Organization and others to call for a change of course – demands the ruling Communist Party has angrily rejected .
While the number of cases and deaths in China is relatively small compared to the US and other countries, the party remains committed to the strategy aimed at isolating every case and eliminating the virus completely. Most other governments have relaxed antivirus controls and now rely on vaccination and immunity from previous infections to prevent deaths and serious illnesses.
Stricter measures have been enacted in many other parts of China, although the government has called for more precise and targeted measures to reduce social burdens and economic costs. Local officials are under intense pressure to prevent outbreaks, and often tend to take the most extreme measures.
Guangzhou on Monday suspended access to its Baiyun district of 3.7 million people, while residents in some areas of Shijiazhuang, a city of 11 million southwest of Beijing, were told to stay home while mass testing is carried out.
A key issue is concern about the public’s vulnerability to the virus. Because few have contracted or even been exposed to COVID-19, it is believed that only a small percentage have developed effective antibodies against the virus.
China has an overall coronavirus vaccination rate of more than 92%, with most people having received at least one dose. But far fewer elderly Chinese – particularly those over 80 – have gotten the shots, and the earlier vaccination campaign appears to have lost momentum.
Also on Friday, Beijing cut the amount of reserves banks must hold to help lenders comply with orders to defer repayments from companies struggling over mounting antivirus controls.
The amount of deposits banks are required to deposit with the People’s Bank of China will be reduced by 0.25 percentage points to an average of 7.8%, the central bank announced. It mentioned no virus controls and said the cut would “firm the upside base for economic stability”.
Private economists and the International Monetary Fund have lowered already low forecasts for China’s annual economic growth as the government closes shops and offices and tightens controls on manufacturing.