Beijing: There are serious ramifications to being exposed to the coronavirus in China – and not just infection. As the country confronts its biggest outbreak ever, residents in major cities are hunkering down because of the prospect of being sent to a quarantine camp or being locked at home.

Going out in the capital of Beijing means having to scan a QR code to enter venues such as shops and restaurants, and public transport. Under the country’s ubiquitous contract-tracing surveillance system, visiting the same place as someone who’s later found to be infected can land you in a government isolation facility, where conditions can be so poor that some people say they are buying chamber pots and portable tents in preparation.

Pedestrians cross a near deserted road in Beijing, China, on Friday.Credit:Bloomberg

China continues to send every infected person, and their close contacts, to quarantine facilities. Cases just surpassed 30,000 a day nationwide for the first time in the pandemic and cities are responding by building makeshift hospitals and converting convention centres into isolation facilities.

Even though the overall risk of infection remains low, with 1854 cases reported for the city of 22 million people for Thursday, people are staying home.

“I’m not scared of getting infected at all,” said Liu, a 36 year-old who works in the media industry. “I’m in fear of getting locked down or even sent to a quarantine facility. There’s a higher chance I end up there if I scan those codes to get into public venues.”

Liu hasn’t done any in-person shopping during the current coronavirus wave in Beijing.

“Look at how many people are under lockdown now,” she said. “Everyone worries about it.”

Delivery drivers prepare with their orders in Beijing on Friday. Delivery apps are overwhelmed as residents choose not to go out to avoid being thrown into quarantine facilities for being a COVID close contact.Credit:AP

The food situation in the city underscores the point. Stores are stocked, with plentiful fruit, vegetables and nonperishable items that residents might need during a lockdown. But they are also largely devoid of shoppers.

Demand for home delivery through from grocery apps such as Alibaba’s Freshippo is surging, and many services are overwhelmed. The soonest delivery dates are a month out, if slots are available at all.

The impact is easy to see along Beijing’s roads, deserted even during rush hour, and on public transport, where subway patronage has plummeted.

An epidemic control worker who performs nucleic acid tests on people stops to check a list on a usually busy street during rush hour on Friday.Credit:Getty Images

Few people are out and about. Shopping districts, normally teeming with people, are empty. Many schools have closed, eating inside restaurants is no longer allowed and public entertainment venues are luring few visitors.

Cheng, a 32-year-old businessman who preferred to give only one name, cancelled his plans to go to Beijing’s Universal Studios on Friday. He said scanning multiple codes for cabs and park entry would be too risky for him.

Even if there’s no case, “they could put me into some sort of quarantine if they later identify me as a close contact in this ‘journey’,” he said. “It’s just not worth it.”

People walks across an empty street in the Beijing CBD on Friday.Credit:Getty Images

While officials are shutting down apartment buildings block by block, no sweeping measures have been declared. The country’s top leaders released a new coronavirus playbook two weeks ago, focused on refining the approach to virus containment and using more targeted restrictions to minimise the economic disruption.

But getting the flare-up under control to meet the “zero-COVID” requirements without the proven, heavy-handed measures that quelled earlier outbreaks has been a challenge.

The reluctance of citizens to put themselves at risk of encountering the virus – or the quarantine system – is likely limiting what could be a much more exponential surge in cases.

Testing, which has been used to identify cases early across the country, is also being avoided by those worried about exposure. If they don’t eat in restaurants, go shopping or take the metro, the testing queue may be their riskiest activity of the day.

“Don’t get tested if you don’t need to go out,” one Beijing resident wrote on social media. “Getting a COVID test is now the biggest chance to get infected or put yourself at risk.”


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