The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beijing’s new coronavirus outbreak carries an urgent message for the world

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In much of Beijing, life had returned to something like normal weeks ago. Restaurants welcomed diners, people went back to work, schools reopened. The pandemic seemed like something that was happening to the rest of the world, not China.

Then Beijing announced Thursday its first domestically transmitted coronavirus case in 55 days — a 52-year-old man surnamed Tang. Tang told officials that he had not left the city in more than two weeks and had not been in contact with anyone outside the city.

Authorities soon discovered dozens more cases, mostly linked to a sprawling market in Beijing’s southeast. On Saturday, it reimposed strict “wartime” measures to prevent a second wave of infections. Residents, taken aback by a partial lockdown in the city, described something akin to deja vu.

“Two months of things loosening up, and life feeling like it’s going to be normal, and all of a sudden we’re back to where we were in February,” Nelson Quan, restricted to a compound in the Yuquan district, told Al Jazeera.

The number of cases remains small for a city of 22 million. But authorities are taking few chances: 1,200 flights in and out of Beijing’s two airports were canceled on Wednesday. Schools closed just a month after reopening. Since Tang’s case was announced, the city claims to have tested more than 3.5 million people.

In the weeks before this outbreak, Chinese officials had spoken proudly of their success in containing the coronavirus, suggesting China could be a model for others to follow. But the new cases show that model may be much more fragile than it first appeared.

The new cases in Beijing raise worrying questions — not only about how the virus could have gotten to Xinfadi market, which is the obvious concern, but also about whether livestock or even fish carry the virus. Chinese officials said the virus could have been circulating near the market since April.

One thing is painfully clear: This pandemic is far from over.

Scores of domestic flights in and out of Beijing were canceled on June 17 as officials ramped up efforts to contain a new coronavirus outbreak in the capital. (Video: Reuters)

Beijing is battling a second wave, but other nations are not yet over their first. And as China takes its wartime approach to fighting the coronavirus, some nations are retreating. Amid fatigue, uncertainty and economic pain, they have fallen back, choosing to surrender rather than sacrifice.

In the United States, Vice President Pence wrote in the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section this week that the media got it wrong: The United States was not facing a second wave of infections, it was “winning the fight against the invisible enemy.”

Numerous experts, including Anthony S. Fauci, America’s top infectious-disease official, contradict that assessment. “I don’t like to talk about a second wave right now, because we haven’t gotten out of our first wave,” Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Daily Beast.

As businesses across the country reopen, numerous states are seeing new peaks in their outbreaks, along with daily totals that dwarf the cases found in Beijing’s outbreak. None, however, are restricting travel or locking down neighborhoods in the same way.

Globally, the numbers show that the pandemic is surging even as the world tries to move on. The United States is one hot spot, as are other big nations such as Russia and India. In Brazil, which has had the world’s highest number of daily confirmed cases since late May, President Jair Bolsonaro and other officials ignored lockdown warnings.

“We are doing something that no one else has done,” Pedro Hallal, an epidemiologist at the Federal University of Pelotas, told The Washington Post. “We’re getting near the curve’s peak, and it’s like we are almost challenging the virus. ‘Let’s see how many people you can infect. We want to see how strong you are.’”

Other countries that were initially more confident are now watching their good fortune turn. Even as Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi touted his country’s success and condemned critics of his coronavirus strategy, doctors are warning that a surge in cases is overwhelming the system.

“Even the smallest pressure can make the Egyptian health system collapse,” a doctor in her 20s who works at one of Cairo’s premier educational hospitals said in an interview with The Post.

Beijing’s outbreak shows that even when the virus recedes, there can be no return to normality. The speed at which the coronavirus can spread — as well as the lingering uncertainties about how it spreads, who it kills and why — means heightened vigilance will remain a necessity.

There have been other worrying signs from other nations. Singapore and South Korea, which both appeared to have battered back the first wave of the outbreak, have had worrying flare-ups that led them to reimpose some restrictions. New Zealand, which announced it was coronavirus-free on June 8, saw the virus return via travelers from Britain.

Some officials openly admit that we will be playing a game of cat and mouse with coronavirus clusters for months, if not years.

“I personally believe that over the next year or several years, this virus will take root in our society,” Hitoshi Oshitani, a Japanese virologist and government adviser, said in a recent interview, adding that he doubted a vaccine would be effective and that a strategy of waiting for herd immunity was “nonsense.”

Any new outbreak — especially a new outbreak where the chain of transmission cannot be ascertained — is particularly worrying in China, a high-tech, authoritarian state that had staked so much on fighting back the first wave of infections in spring.

Indeed, the market cluster was discovered not because of government surveillance, but because of personal vigilance. Tang, the patient announced last week, had only mild symptoms but biked to a testing center anyway. He apparently understood that we are not back to normal yet.

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