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Panic shopping and fears of lockdown rise in Beijing, along with COVID-19 cases

Shoppers crowded into stores in Beijing on Monday as fears of a lockdown grew amid rising COVID-19 cases in the Chinese capital. Photo by Mark R. Cristino/EPA-EFE

April 25 (UPI) — Millions of Beijing residents began taking mandatory COVID-19 tests on Monday and shoppers rushed to stock up on groceries as a rising number of cases have stoked fears of an impending Shanghai-style lockdown.

The Chinese capital reported 29 new infections on Monday, raising its total to 70 local cases since Friday — a minor outbreak in most places, but more than enough to prompt a severe reaction under China’s zero-COVID approach.

Officials over the weekend said the outbreak in the city of more than 21 million was spreading from multiple transmission chains and called the situation “urgent and grim.”

Some 3.5 million people who live and work in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, where the highest number of cases have been concentrated, began lining up on Monday to take the first of three mandatory PCR tests this week.

Reports of panic buying at grocery stores have spread online and even in official state media as residents fear a repeat of the harsh lockdowns in Shanghai, which is entering its fourth week with millions still unable to leave their homes.

“Amid the virus surge, some areas in Chaoyang with the presence of COVID-19 cases saw panic shopping, and several markets suffered a temporary shortage of fresh vegetables on Sunday afternoon,” China’s state-run Global Times reported.

International media outlets reported long lines and empty shelves over the weekend. Several online grocery delivery apps were sold out of food, the Financial Times reported.

In Shanghai, the financial hub’s 25 million residents had little advance warning when limited closures turned into an indefinite citywide lockdown at the beginning of April. Food shortages, family separations and streets sealed off with fences have prompted a rare public outrage against China’s central government.

A viral video documenting the voices of residents pleading to officials for help spread on Chinese social media last week before being pulled down by censors.

China’s zero-COVID approach of mass testing, snap lockdowns and lengthy quarantines worked to keep cases to a minimum throughout most of the pandemic, but the highly contagious Omicron variant has driven record numbers of infections despite the draconian measures.

On Monday, Shanghai authorities reported more than 19,000 new cases and 51 deaths — a record total — from a day earlier.

Beijing officials show little sign of backing away from a similar approach, however, despite the heavy economic and social tolls in Shanghai.

“All departments and units at all levels must take the most decisive measures to control risks as quickly as possible, trace the source of the flow, and resolutely block the chain of virus transmission,” Cai Qi, Communist Party secretary of Beijing, said at a meeting over the weekend.

“It is necessary to tightly grasp the prevention and control of social aspects, and external control and internal screening must always be unremitting,” he said, according to the official Beijing Daily.