For just one day, Beijing was a Covid-free city.
On Tuesday 9 June, local authorities reported that the last active Covid-19 case had been discharged from a local hospital. City health officials appeared without face masks at the daily press conference, to announce that there were “no new cases and no suspected infections”. Beijing, finally, seemed to breathe a little easier. The now-ubiquitous temperature checks, at the entrance to every office building, restaurant and hutong (alleyway), were dismantled. The Lama Temple and Beijing aquarium were open to the public for the first time since January and were immediately packed to capacity. It was a beautiful summer’s day – bright blue skies and the sharp Beijing light that glints golden on the city’s tower blocks.
On Wednesday 10 June, 52-year old Mr Tang – feeling inexplicably cold and exhausted – bicycled alone to a hospital for a checkup and tested positive for Covid-19. Beijing’s 56-day streak of no locally transmitted cases was broken, and all signs seemed to indicate that an outbreak had been quietly spreading through the city for weeks.
Two months of a slow crawl towards normal city life were reversed overnight. Beijing time travelled back to February. All residential compounds around Mr Tang’s residence were put under strict lockdown, and the outbreak’s origin was traced to the sprawling Xinfadi wholesale market, which supplies close to 80% of the city’s fruit and vegetables.
The might of China’s public health system, honed after public criticism of the early response to Wuhan, was brought to bear. Over 100,000 contacts were identified for testing, tracing and isolation, and thousands of samples taken from stalls around the market. Xinfadi was the perfect storm for an uncontrollable new wave. In the worst-case scenario, as the key hub for the city’s food supply, it had first-degree connections to most restaurants, bars and community markets across Beijing. Expand that circle by one degree, and you had every delivery worker and every restaurant-goer as a potential vector for spread.
By 12 June, 36 cases linked to the Xinfadi market were discovered. Cases began to pop up elsewhere in the country, connected to Beijing. China’s vice-premier called the situation “grave”, prompting fears of more sweeping lockdowns.
Relatively speaking, it was a small outbreak. By comparison, New York City reported 292 new cases on 12 June alone. Nevertheless, Beijing was put in what health officials called “wartime mode” to contain the virus, mobilising medical workers like troops against an insurgency. But who it felt like “war” for, in this case, was determined by social class and geographic proximity.
Many of the initial cluster of cases were working-class migrants: restaurant workers who lived in the same dormitory, seafood sellers, drivers. Thousands of frontline retail workers were tested over the next few days. Videos shared on WeChat showed many being made to wait shoulder-to-shoulder for hours in crowded stadiums and parks in the searing summer heat.
In “exclusion zones” around multiple Beijing markets, residential lockdowns and severed transport links were patrolled by battalions of hazmat-clad volunteers. But walk around the hutongs around Beijing’s Art Museum – an area of upscale shops and restaurants – and you could see that nothing was different: barbecue stalls spilled out into the street and raucous picnics continued with face masks around the chin.
A curious tension emerged between the need to project normality, and to show decisive action. Another full lockdown would be disastrous for Beijing’s economy, but so would an uncontrolled outbreak. For the city’s service industries, this led to confusing mixed messages. Bars in some neighbourhoods were told to stay open as normal, then close, then open for a limited time contingent on testing, then close, all within hours.
For the rest of the city, a familiar mix of dread and powerlessness returned. Over 2 million tuned into the livestreams of the daily Covid-19 press conferences, with officials now wearing face masks again. Even the memes were melancholy – a popular one featured a person marked “Beijing”, in full plate-mail armour like a medieval knight, who is then hit by a precise arrow, marked “Xinfadi”, right through the helmet’s eye socket. The shopping district of Sanlitun, which surely features the city’s highest density of cafes per capita, took on a deserted look as bars and restaurants closed.
Beijing residents are used to the city changing suddenly before their eyes, but the pandemic and its lockdowns have produced a creeping feeling that something has been lost for good. Beijingers feel as if they’ve emerged into a new city and started new lives. The particular liveliness associated with Beijing street life, exemplified by the word renao (热闹), was the first thing to disappear in lockdown, and will likely be the last to return. The cornerstones of the city’s renao: live music, nightclubs, cinemas, karaoke bars, lamb skewers around tiny plastic tables on the street – are all “closed until further notice”.
Where a reopening seemed imminent a week ago, this resurgence has pushed that possibility out into a distant future. On 18 June, officials from China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention said that the outbreak was already “under control”, but the experience has already revived familiar fears – that future plans are null and void, replaced by an endless present of “doom-scrolling” through social media for news and rumour.
A second wave opens the possibility of a third, and a fourth. In Beijing, a city that came so close to “defeating” the virus for good, that means whatever happens, we don’t get to go back to the city we knew.
• Krish Raghav is an illustrator and writer based in Beijing