Analysis: What can we learn from the COVID-19 case spike in Beijing?
For nearly eight weeks, Beijing seemed to be pretty much coronavirus-free. It had not reported any locally-transmitted infections and life had been returning to normal. Businesses and schools reopened, people went back to work and the city's public transport and parks were once again teeming with crowds. The local authorities seemed quite chuffed.
That illusion was shattered last Thursday, however, when officials confirmed an outbreak of new infections in Fengtai, a district in the south-west of the capital. The number of cases in the city climbed steeply with each following day. Many of those infected had visited or worked in Xinfadi, a sprawling wholesale market that is the single largest source of the city’s fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood.
A massive campaign was subsequently launched to trace and test the 356,000 people who, officials say, have been to the market since May 30, have had close contact with someone who has been there, or live nearby. As of today, at least 180 people have shown to be infected.
China has demonstrated its unwillingness to take chances. Within a matter of days, the capital of 21 million people was placed under a partial lockdown. Authorities reintroduced restrictive measures used earlier to fight the initial wave of infections: sealing off residential neighbourhoods; closing schools; barring hundreds of thousands of people from leaving the city; and cancelling hundreds of flights.
And now evidence suggests that the outbreak probably originated in Europe, according to the Chinese government and independent researchers. Newly-released genetic sequences suggest the viruses are older than those currently found in Europe, based on the number of mutations. The finding adds clout to an idea that had been circulating in Beijing for some time before the new outbreak was found last weekend in the market.
These sudden spikes are a pattern we’ve seen elsewhere. South Korea, much hailed for its success in containing the virus early on, had to fight a surge in infections in late May after the easing of social distancing rules and the reopening of schools. Likewise, Singapore had a wave of new cases in April among migrant workers living in packed dormitories. And Iran has been experiencing a dramatic and deadly rise in infections in recent weeks, having earlier claimed the virus was under control.
None of these examples are, however, a second wave, but simply the reemergence of the deadly disease which, while suppressed, has not gone away.
The recent outbreak in Beijing demonstrates just how quickly the spread can begin again. Cases in Hebei, Liaoning, Sichuan and Zhejiang provinces have been linked to the cluster in Beijing, prompting other cities to impose quarantine measures on travellers from the capital. And Macau is requiring all arrivals from Beijing to undergo 14 days of medical observation.
But, it also shows how countries might well deal with the virus in the future. No national lockdowns (or even state ones) but rather the officials suggested Beijing residents from medium or high-risk areas are not allowed to leave the capital, while those from other districts must be tested for the virus within seven days of their departure. Management of the disease is at a community or city level.
Authorities are now claiming this latest spike is under control. Unfortunately, in future that’s all we can hope to achieve; to contain and control the virus because it’s simply not going to disappear.