Restaurants have closed because too many staff have tested positive for Covid. The normally ubiquitous food delivery men smashing through traffic on their scooters have all but disappeared due to infections. Pharmacies were emptied of cold remedies and supermarkets were running out of 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 throes of a lockdown – this time self-imposed by residents. Sidewalks and pedestrian zones are barren, once busy traffic arteries are deserted. Residents huddle indoors and hoard medicines as a wave of Covid sweeps the Chinese capital.
“No one dares to come out now,” said Yue Jiajun, a Beijing restaurant owner who initially partied when customers were allowed to dine inside last week, only to later learn the surge in infections was keeping them out.
“Even for takeout, I don’t have any customers,” said Mr. Yue, who admitted there probably weren’t enough delivery drivers for his orders anyway.
Across the city, residents were gripped by the sinking realization that a virus that most of the world had already experienced was spreading freely and rapidly for the first time three years after it first appeared. Weibo, China’s popular social media service, was awash with people across the country sharing news of their infections and their personal experiences with Covid.
“Fifty to 60 percent of my relatives and friends have tested positive,” one person wrote on Weibo, a social media site.
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Liu Qiangdong, the executive director of e-commerce website JD.com, and Wang Shi, a real estate tycoon, shared their experiences of recovering from Covid on Weibo. A virus-stricken Zhang Lan, the founder of a popular restaurant chain, South Beauty Group, rallied the energy to sell vitamin supplements and sausage as possible cures on a livestream.
“I’m here to encourage you,” Ms. Zhang told viewers. “Adjust your mentality, drink lots of water. You’ll be fine.”
Medicines are hard to find, either in hospital clinics or in pharmacies. Many local residents complain that the city should have done more to anticipate the Covid outbreak and stockpile medicines in advance.
“The most pressing problem is the shortage of medicines,” said a 25-year-old Beijing resident, who gave only his family name, Wang, given the political sensitivity of the issue.
Mr. Wang said that on Saturday morning he developed a fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit and a sore throat and felt dizzy. He tested positive for coronavirus on a rapid antigen test at home and went to a fever clinic at a hospital.
“I don’t know if I’m doing it right at home, so I came to the hospital to find out if there were any precautions,” Mr Wang said, adding that he had tried ibuprofen, a pain reliever, and another to get popular herbal remedy called Lianhua Qingwen, which has been the subject of price gouging.
The doctor instead prescribed loxoprofen, another pain reliever, and ganmao qingre granules, a less sought-after herbal remedy. “Many high-demand drugs are currently unavailable, and I don’t know if other prescribed drugs can have the same effect,” Mr Wang said.
Vincent Chen said he asked friends outside Beijing to send him fever medication after he couldn’t find any at his local pharmacies or online. He had to splurge on an express delivery service because the regular services were either too busy or understaffed.
“Couriers are paralyzed,” said Mr Chen, 35.
Others have prevailed. Tutorials are now spreading on Weibo teaching city dwellers how to buy medicines from rural pharmacies.
Hoarding remedies isn’t just limited to cough medicine and lozenges. Shops are now running out of peaches out of the jar because they are believed to be packed with enough nutrients to stave off the virus. The sweet snack is popular in northeast China for treating cold symptoms, but now appears to be gaining converts elsewhere as people seek to gain an edge against the disease. State media had to step in and explain that there is no evidence peaches make a difference.
It wasn’t the only time in the last week that the government has had to step in to try to calm an elixir frenzy. The State Market Administration, a market watchdog, warned manufacturers and retailers of runaway prices after Lianhua Qingwen, the herbal remedy, began selling at more than three times its regular price.
“It is strictly forbidden to drive up prices,” the regulator said on Friday.
Shares of Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical, the maker of Lianhua Qingwen, are up more than 20 percent since the easing of Covid restrictions on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.
The shortage does not appear to have spread to food. Beijing has repeatedly promised food would remain adequate during the pandemic. The capital has traditionally had priority in food supplies due to its political importance.
Large piles of oranges, corn, cabbage and other produce were still available in supermarkets around the city that could muster enough staff to stay open. The only areas with dwindling inventory were cleaning products and alcohol as customers tried to hedge how long they would have to stay indoors.
Other stores are not as fortunate as grocery stores. China last week tried to revive its travel industry by ending the many inter-provincial travel restrictions. However, some Beijing hotels have stopped accepting new guests because they don’t have enough staff to take care of them.
The severity of the outbreak in Beijing is difficult to assess. China’s mass testing system is being dismantled, so the number of infections is unknown. The city recorded 559 confirmed cases and 468 asymptomatic infections as of Monday. That’s down from 1,163 confirmed cases and 3,503 asymptomatic infections on December 5, the last day authorities required a negative test to enter public spaces.
Other available data suggests one city is experiencing a spike in cases. Li Ang, a spokesman for the Beijing Municipal Health Commission, told a news conference on Monday that the number of emergency calls was six times higher than normal on Friday and visits to fever clinics increased 16 times in one week.
One of the biggest questions is whether China can keep up medical care for people who are critically ill with Covid or have unrelated medical conditions that need treatment. Beijing has an advantage over rural areas with some of the best hospitals in the country. The city appealed Saturday not to call the emergency medical line if they were asymptomatic or had only mild cases.
Several elderly people who left a hospital in Dongcheng district on Saturday said in separate interviews they had been treated, including for kidney dialysis and an injured foot.
But a 66-year-old man who complained of chronic pain at the base of his back for over a week said he was turned away because the emergency room was full. The man, who gave only his family name Gao amid political sensitivity when discussing China’s response to the pandemic, said he would try again later.
“I’m still in pain,” he said. “I will come back.”
Li You contributed to the research.