Stockpiling surge in Beijing as residents fear they will be forced into quarantine

A Covid outbreak in Beijing has sparked stockpiling of food by residents worried about the possibility of a Shanghai-style lockdown. Credit: AP

Some have been hoarding for weeks, since the lockdown in Shanghai started, others went on a frantic shopping spree as mass testing was announced on Sunday night. I don’t know of anyone in Beijing who hasn’t stocked up, fearing the capital will be the next to put everyone in quarantine. On Monday, it was madness as thousands flocked to the shops or went online to buy whatever they could.

People wearing face masks line up outside a supermarket in Beijing. Credit: AP

The shelves were emptied of vegetables, rice, pasta, tinned foods, eggs, water whatever food, drink or necessities we thought we might need to get us through a lockdown that could last for more than a month.

We queued at the shops and stood in line to get the first of three mandatory Covid tests. That hysteria has thankfully subsided. The figures released from the first round of testing, showing just 32 cases from 3.6 million tests, has helped people to relax a bit, perhaps safe in the knowledge they are now prepared should the government still decide the Covid tally merits a city-wide shut down.

For now, the lockdowns have been isolated to the communities in which cases have been found. That still affects thousands of people but for now the spread has not been deemed serious enough for any wider measures.

The scenes at the supermarkets in Beijing on Monday were sparked by fear that the capital could be the next to suffer the severe conditions which have afflicted people in Shanghai. When cases started to emerge in Shanghai at the start of March people there were reassured there would be no lockdown. Then the authorities announced they would split the city in half and have two controlled lockdowns, each lasting just 5 days, one after the other. Millions who entered the first lockdown on March 28, still haven’t been released, and there are millions more who have now been in quarantine in their homes or hotels for more than 40 days. Although some have been allowed out of their homes into ‘community monitoring’ just yesterday Shanghai announced it would conduct another round of mass testing, and over the weekend the authorities started to erect fences, some with barbed wire, to keep people from trying to escape their isolation. The situation is still grim. Although the food shortages have subsided, there are still complaints of rotten or spoiled food being delivered by the authorities after it has been left sitting outside in the heat, or in distribution centres for hours or days on end.

Workers prepare to conduct nucleic acid test for citizens in Huangpu District in Shanghai, China. Credit: AP

The fact that Beijing has already launched a mental health awareness campaign and hotlines for support, indicates not so much that it is preparing for a lockdown, but that it has recognised the scarring toll the situation in Shanghai has taken on its people, and likely would do here. We have been unable to verify a lot of the videos posted on social media, but we can say with certainty that dozens of people have taken their own lives as a result of being locked in their homes or isolation facilities. The official Covid death toll in Shanghai is 238, but the figure for deaths resulting from the extreme quarantines is believed to be much higher. In a city of 26 million people there will be hundreds of thousands of cancer patients, heart patients, diabetes patients, you name it, who have been unable to seek treatment.

There will be asthma sufferers who haven’t been able to get inhalers, pregnant women who have been delayed getting to hospital, or unable to get to check-ups.

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For two years, since battling the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China has remained shut off to the world and largely Covid free. It has successfully handled large outbreaks stopping the spread in a matter of weeks. Omicron has given China’s ‘dynamic zero Covid’ policy its first real test and although the numbers in Shanghai are starting to come down, we have to ask at what cost?

A failure to vaccinate the elderly and the young in Shanghai is partially to blame, but had complacency also crept in?

There will be no public inquiry when this is all over, many officials have lost their jobs for their apparent failures to prevent it getting to this disastrous level, but the people of Shanghai will never get answers to the many questions they are simmering over in their isolation, and those who have lost loved ones will not get any justice. God forbid Beijing could succumb to the same fate.