BEIJING – Beijing residents are coping with abrupt local lockdowns and sweeping COVID-19 testing requirements as the Chinese capital seeks to prevent a coronavirus outbreak ahead of the Winter Olympics that opens in less than two weeks.
The lockdowns are part of China’s “zero tolerance” measures to fight the pandemic that have been ratcheted-up ahead of the Games. Those now include requiring tests for anyone who purchases medications to treat cold, cough, fever and other maladies.
University student Cheryl Zhang said that the health code app that all Chinese have installed on their smart phones began notifying her to get tested after she bought medication four days previously.
“I was seriously panicking,” said Zhang, who was taking a stroll across the street from the Olympic Village. “But when I got to the hospital and saw the medical workers striving to keep things in order, I didn’t feel angry any more. The problem was sorted out very quickly.”
Such purchases are tracked via a smart phone app that requires customers to swipe their information when they buy health supplies or simply enter pharmacies. China strictly controls sales of medications and a doctor's prescription is often required for ordinary cold medications or even vitamins.
A notice posted at a Beijing pharmacy Tuesday said anyone who had bought any of four types of medication over the past two weeks was required to obtain a test within 72 hours. Failing to do so would affect their status health status as listed on their phones, “possibly affecting your going out and daily life," the notice said.
At the Anzhen residential community about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the main Olympic Village, residents were confined to their homes from Sunday morning until Tuesday afternoon. A notice said one building remained under isolation.
No word was given about confirmed cases in the area, but all residents were required to be tested for COVID-19, with a second round scheduled for Thursday. Residents must continue monitoring their health for two weeks following the lifting of quarantine.
The strict policies are credited with suppressing major outbreaks. China on Tuesday reported a mere 18 cases of local infection, including five in Beijing. Few have protested the policies, a reflection also of China's authoritarian Communist Party that restricts free speech and tolerates no opposition.
However, at the Anzhen community, an elderly resident said he wished authorities would provide more information.
“I don’t worry too much but I hope the situation can be more transparent,” said the man, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid trouble from the community management. “We are close to the Olympic Village and if they want to test everyone ahead of the games, we understand, but now the community has been locked down and we were told nothing.”
A cluster of COVID-19 cases in Beijing has prompted authorities to test millions and impose new measures, even as the city of Xi’an in north-central China lifted on Monday a monthlong lockdown that had isolated its 13 million residents.
At least six Beijing neighborhoods have been targeted for lockdowns and officials in the capital said they would conduct a second round of mass testing of the Fengtai district’s 2 million residents, where the majority of the capital’s 40 coronavirus cases since Jan. 15 have been found. Some trains and flights to Beijing have also been suspended to stop travel from areas with outbreaks.
The severe measures, despite a relatively low number of cases, illustrate the acute concern of government officials in the run-up to the Olympics' opening in Beijing on Feb. 4.
All participants in the Games will be tested on arrival and every day and be completely isolated from the general public.
More than 3,000 people have arrived for the Games since Jan. 4, including over 300 athletes and team officials, plus media and other participants, organizers said Monday. So far, 78 people have tested positive, including one who was an athlete or team official.
While taking strict anti-pandemic measures, China has shrugged off political controversies around the Games related to Beijing's record on human rights.
Chinese president and head of the ruling Communist Party Xi Jinping on Tuesday told IOC President Thomas Bach that Beijing was ready to host a “simple, safe and splendid Winter Olympics," the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
“Everything is ready for the Beijing Winter Olympics following more than six years of preparations," Xi was quoted as telling Bach.
Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at Hong Kong University, said the small clusters so far are unlikely to affect the Winter Olympics.
He added that while publicly people may not complain about strict anti-virus policies, it’s a different story in private.
“Actually under the table there is a lot of questioning and protesting and a lot of complaints” about the lockdowns and other measures that are often imposed with little notice on residents, Jin said.
He also questioned the usefulness of mass testing, saying the focus should be on those “spreaders” likely to be carrying the virus.
“This mass testing is actually wasting a lot of resources, it’s completely unnecessary," Jin said.
Overuse of health code apps have also raised privacy concerns among legal experts, Jin said. While most stores and offices and public buildings still require visitors to scan their codes, the requirement is more laxly enforced in residential communities, he said.
Back at the Anzhen community, chef Yang Haiping, who specializes in mutton hotpot, said his restaurant had been forced to temporarily close after many of its employees were placed under lockdown.
Yang said he served food through gates guarded by police to co-workers who hadn’t had sufficient time to stock up.
“We will wait for the notice about what to do next," Yang said.
Associated Press writer Huizhong Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and researchers Olivia Zhang and Caroline Chen in Beijing contributed to this report.