Restaurants have closed because too many staff have tested positive for Covid. The usually ubiquitous food delivery people who ride through traffic on their scooters have all but disappeared due to infections. Pharmacies have been emptied of cold medicines, and supermarkets lack the essentials: disinfectant solution, antibacterial wipes, beer.
Less than a week after the Chinese government lifted its strict “zero Covid” restrictions, Beijing looks like a city in the grip of a lockdown – this time, self-imposed by locals. Sidewalks and pedestrian shopping streets are barren and once-busy thoroughfares are deserted. Residents hide indoors and stockpile medicine as a wave of Covid sweeps through the Chinese capital.
“No one dares to go out now,” said Yue Jiajun, a Beijing restaurateur, who first celebrated when customers were allowed to dine indoors last week only to learn later that the surge in infections would keep them away.
“Even for takeout, I don’t have customers,” said Mr Yue, who admitted there were probably not enough delivery drivers for his orders anyway.
Across the city, residents were gripped by the realization that a virus most of the world had already experienced was spreading freely and rapidly for the first time, three years after it emerged. Weibo, China’s popular social media service, was inundated with people across the country sharing news of their infections and personal experiences with Covid.
“Fifty to 60% of my relatives and friends have tested positive,” one person wrote on Weibo, a social media site.
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Liu Qiangdong, the general manager of e-commerce site JD.com, and Wang Shi, a real estate tycoon, shared their experiences on Covid recovery on Weibo. A virus Zhang Lan, the founder of a popular restaurant chain, South Beauty Group, mustered the energy to sell vitamin supplements and sausages as potential cures on a livestream.
“I’m here to cheer you on,” Ms. Zhang told her viewers. “Adjust your mentality, drink lots of water. It’ll be fine.”
Medicines have become difficult to find, whether in hospital clinics or in pharmacies. Many residents complain that the city should have done more to anticipate the Covid outbreak and stockpile medicine in advance.
“The most pressing issue is the shortage of medicine,” said a 25-year-old Beijing resident who gave only his surname, Wang, given the political sensitivity of the issue.
Mr. Wang said he developed a 100-degree Fahrenheit fever and sore throat on Saturday morning and became dizzy. He tested positive for coronavirus in a rapid home antigen test and attended a fever clinic at a hospital.
“I don’t know if I’m doing it well at home, so I came to the hospital to find out if there were any precautions,” Wang said, adding that he had tried to get medical advice. ibuprofen, a painkiller, and a popular herbal remedy called Lianhua Qingwen that has been overpriced.
The doctor instead prescribed loxoprofen, a different painkiller, and Ganmao Qingre granules, a less coveted herbal remedy. “Many drugs in high demand are currently unavailable, and I don’t know if other prescribed drugs can have the same effect,” Wang said.
Vincent Chen said he resorted to begging friends outside Beijing to send him fever medicine after he couldn’t find any at his local pharmacies or online. He must have splurged on an express delivery company because the regular services were too busy or didn’t have enough staff.
“The couriers are paralyzed,” said Mr. Chen, 35.
Others hung on. Tutorials are now spreading on Weibo to teach city dwellers how to buy medicine from country pharmacies.
Remedy hoarding is not limited to cough medicine and lozenges. Stores are now running out of jarred peaches, as they are believed to contain enough nutrients to ward off the virus. The sweet snack is popular in northeast China for treating cold symptoms, but it now appears to be gaining converts elsewhere as people try to gain an edge over the disease. State media had to chime in, saying there was no evidence the peaches made a difference.
It wasn’t the only time in the past week the government had to step in to try and quell an elixir frenzy. The State Administration for Market Regulation, a market watchdog, warned growers and retailers of runaway prices after herbal remedy Lianhua Qingwen started selling at more than triple its normal price.
“Raise prices are strictly prohibited,” the regulator said on Friday.
Shares of Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical, the maker of Lianhua Qingwen, have jumped more than 20% on the Shenzhen stock market since Covid restrictions were eased.
The shortages do not appear to have extended to food. Beijing has repeatedly promised that groceries will remain adequate during the pandemic. The capital, given its political importance, is traditionally a priority for food supply.
Large piles of oranges, corn, cabbages and other produce were still available in supermarkets across the city which were able to muster enough staff to stay open. The only sections that were running out of stock were those for cleaning supplies and alcohol, as customers tried to plan how long they would need to stay inside.
Other businesses aren’t as lucky as grocery stores. China tried to revitalize its travel industry last week by ending numerous travel restrictions between provinces. But some hotels in Beijing have stopped admitting new guests because they have too few staff to take care of them.
The severity of Beijing’s outbreak is difficult to discern. China’s mass testing system is being dismantled, so the number of infections is unknown. The city on Monday recorded 559 confirmed cases and 468 asymptomatic infections. That’s down from 1,163 confirmed cases and 3,503 asymptomatic infections on Dec. 5, the last day authorities required a negative test to enter public spaces.
Other available data suggests a city is seeing an increase in cases. Li Ang, spokesman for the Beijing Municipal Health Commission, told a press conference on Monday that the number of calls to emergency services on Friday was six times higher than normal and that visits in fever clinics had increased 16 times in one week.
One of the biggest questions is whether China can maintain medical care for people who become seriously ill with Covid or who have unrelated conditions requiring treatment. Beijing, with some of the best hospitals in the country, has an advantage over rural areas. The city on Saturday called on people not to call the medical emergency hotline if they were asymptomatic or had only mild cases.
Several elderly people leaving a Dongcheng district hospital on Saturday said in separate interviews that they had received treatment, including for kidney dialysis and a foot injury.
But a 66-year-old man, complaining of a week of chronic pain in the base of his back, says he was turned away because the emergency room was full. The man, who gave only his last name, Gao, given the political sensitivity of discussions of China’s response to the pandemic, said he would try again later.
“I’m still in pain,” he said. “I’ll be back.”
Li you contributed to the research.