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People line up outside a makeshift nucleic acid testing site during a mass testing for COVID-19 in Haidian district of Beijing, on April 26, 2022. Image Credit: REUTERS

BEIJING/SHANGHAI: Three-quarters of Beijing’s 22 million people lined up for COVID-19 tests on Tuesday as authorities in the Chinese capital raced to stamp out a nascent outbreak and avert the debilitating city-wide lockdown that has shrouded Shanghai for a month.

Having seen the struggles of China’s commercial hub to meet the basic needs of its increasingly frustrated 25 million residents, people in Beijing were stocking up on food and supplies.

Beijing began tests in its most populous district Chaoyang on Monday morning. By nighttime, authorities listed 10 other districts and one economic development zone for mandatory tests this week, covering a total of 20 million people of which 16 million were scheduled to be screened on Tuesday.

The orders come days after dozens of infections were found.

Shanghai waited for about a month and more than 1,000 cases before launching city-wide testing in early April.

Liu Wentao, a Beijing cook, said he was concerned about the new outbreak, but was confident the capital could handle it.

“The virus controls are stronger than in other places, I don’t think it will be like Shanghai,” he said on his way to get tested.

Beijing recorded 33 new COVID cases for April 25, up from 19 the day before with no deaths reported so far in the outbreak.

The total case load is miniscule compared with hundreds of thousands in Shanghai.

Shanghai reported 52 new COVID deaths on Tuesday, up from 51 the day before. That takes the official death toll to 190, all reported from April 17 onwards, although many residents have said relatives or friends died after catching COVID as early as March, casting doubt over the statistics.

Economic damage

In the capital, schools, stores and offices remained open, but the iconic Lama temple would be closed to tourists from Wednesday, while Beijing’s National Theater would close for the rest of the month.

Officials have urged residents to refrain from leaving the capital and avoid gatherings for the upcoming April 30-May 4 Labour Day holidays.

Concerns about the economy echoed among residents, businesses and financial markets, with Chinese stocks, lingering near two-year lows.

“If we can’t go to work, there will be no income,” said Dewei, 31, who worked at a small Chaoyang gym.

The economic fallout from any lockdown in Beijing is likely to be less severe than that on manufacturing powerhouse Shanghai, a key cog in national and global supply chains.

“In Beijing, I think it has less impact on businesses because most of these positions can be done from home,” Beijing-based Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce, told Reuters.

“There is less trucking involved, there is less packaging involved, there is less production going on.” Hwabao Trust economist Nie Wen estimated a twin Beijing-Shanghai lockdown may trim one percentage point of China’s economic output in the second quarter.

Bad weather

In Shanghai, strict enforcement of measures continued, but plans for a city-wide PCR testing exercise were somewhat derailed by initial forecasts of hail and thunderstorm, later downgraded to cloudy conditions.

While authorities say they have relaxed some curbs, most people are still either confined to their homes or cannot leave their residential compounds. Even those who can go out have few options, with shops and most other venues closed.

In areas where leaving home is allowed, residents were asked to take rapid antigen tests on their own, rather than line up for PCR testing in the rain. In the rest of Shanghai, daily PCR tests remained mandatory.