A Covid-19 outbreak at Xinfadi market in Beijing has put China’s new containment strategies to the test
Xinfadi market is busiest in the middle of the night. Corn from Hubei, cherries from Shandong, garlic from Jiangsu, gather momentarily before they are dispersed to supermarkets across Beijing. In just one day, the market moves thousands of tonnes of goods. But on June 14, sellers woke up very early not to deal produce, but to follow new signage, to tents where they were tested for Covid-19.
At 6am, one fruit vendor said that there were already more than 200 people ahead of him in the queue, according to an interview with Sanlian Life Week magazine. Out of those waiting to be tested, some were told to go by their Party neighbourhood committee representatives, some by their concerned families, and others came for their own peace of mind.
The source of the second Covid-19 wave is not yet confirmed; news outlets originally reported a rumour that it came in on imported salmon but this has since been quashed by leading epidemiologists. Xinfadi has become the centre for a new cluster of cases – people pass in and out in their thousands. This wave has once again reached inner-city districts of Beijing and other provinces, such as Hebei, which neighbours Beijing, but also Sichuan, in southwest China. As of Wednesday, June 17, Beijing posted 137 new cases over the previous six days.
Of the earliest confirmed cases in this Beijing outbreak, few are locals. They are vendors, restaurant workers, cleaners – essential migrant workers from Hebei, or even further afield. Many of the thousands who run the market’s stalls live in nearby residential communities. Some even closer – Xinfadi is where they sleep, as well as sell.
The first wave of Covid-19 spurred a burst in livestreaming and the Xinfadi vendors had also joined in. When the market closed, videos of sellers forced to discard produce were the ones that went viral. Since then, the local government has organised temporary trading venues elsewhere to ensure supply chains remain intact.
China’s active-case peak has long passed. The number of new Covid-19 cases fell through March, and allowed the opening of Wuhan in April. Those travelling and staying at hotels say where personnel once checked temperatures now stand empty desks. Before this outbreak, Beijing had not recorded a case of domestic transmission in almost two months.
In May, you were just as likely to be ignored or waved past a checkpoint, as to be asked to show your health code. Each city has its own: Beijing’s version, Jiankangbao, does not collect location data, but aggregates self-reported data, medical records, and travel history such as train and flight bookings.
This second outbreak has prompted a flurry of activity as officials mobilise to stop further transmission taking place. In communities deemed high risk, people’s health codes have turned yellow, which means they must quarantine at home. Those who want to leave Beijing must show a negative test taken within the last seven days. State-owned telecoms companies are handing over data to help with tracking.
The net is spread wide and the tracing operation immense. Even residents who have travelled on highways a few kilometres away from Xinfadi, or taken a subway line that runs near it, have received phone calls inquiring whether they have visited. State media reported almost 200,000 people had been contacted as part of the contact tracing drive, and 356,000 subsequently tested.
Despite the new cases, Beijing has not ground to a halt. “They are far more prepared for this ‘second wave’ as they’ve been anticipating it for months,” says Pei Hao, a Beijing-based global health researcher. Ground-level management has tightened once more. Two district officials were dismissed, the market’s manager fired, a warning to those who do not take the epidemic seriously. Primary and secondary schools are closed. Shops, restaurants, and offices remain open, for now. This partial lockdown includes nearly 30 residential compounds which lie close to Xinfadi or another two smaller markets to which officials know the virus has spread.
China’s measures to contain the virus are, in essence, no different from those recommended by epidemiologists around the world – testing, tracing, and isolation. The focus remains finding people who are infected and those whom they have been in contact with.
Online questionnaires have started again. Companies require their employees to fill these out stating whether or not they visited Xinfadi. If you have been, you have to go for a test and stay at home. “While a lot of the measures are slightly inconvenient, the officials have a paper trail and records to find everyone who might be affected, and their response will be more robust accordingly,” says Hao.
Each confirmed case has a three-line description aired on the news. While anonymised, they include details on the infected individual’s age, where they are from, and where they have been.
Liangliang, who works for a health tech company in Beijing, follows these reports closely. He lives in inner Beijing, 25 kilometres away from Xinfadi. Little has changed for him. He has filled in a questionnaire, on which he declared he had not visited the market. He continues to commute to work, though he has his temperature checked at the office and wears masks in meetings. He’s already had a knock on the door from the local neighbourhood committee representative.
China’s epidemic-fighting infrastructure is as much personal as it is technological. These committees are small. Just three people might manage a few thousand households, so volunteers are needed to help. Over the past few days, Beijing residents say that they have received formal notices about which zones are high-risk, some three-minute long voice messages on WeChat with few instructions and lots of advice, or face-to-face questions. “Everything in China has to be at scale,” says Hao. “People need to cooperate in order for any response measure to ultimately be successful.”
A few steps beyond Liangliang’s inner-Beijing residential compound sits Mrs Liu’s corner shop. As Xinfadi supplied it with produce, Mrs Liu went for a nucleic acid test. Liangliang found this out through a WeChat group she’d created for her customers; he goes there for peanuts, beer, and latiao (fried chewy chilli dough-sticks).
Mrs Liu’s test came back negative. Her neighbourhood committee asked her to self-quarantine anyway. China’s fight against the virus does not start and end with the state. People are invested, they make sacrifices, they forego two weeks of income. In her local WeChat group, Mrs Liu says that she was due for a holiday anyway. For the next two weeks, her shopfront will be empty, closed.