Mass testing, supermarket lines: Locals in Tianjin, China face the arrival of Omicron
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After an increase in cases of the Omicron variant in the northeastern Chinese city of Tianjin, nearly 14 million residents have been tested at least twice and routes in and out of the city have been strictly controlled. Two Tianjin locals told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about their return to the Covid-19 era after more than a year of "normal" life.
Authorities discovered a new epidemic linked to the Omicron variant on January 8, 2022 in Tianjin. The city has now become the new frontline of China's "Zero Covid" policy. The policy has been enforced with vigour, especially as the city is only thirty minutes away by train from Beijing, where the 2022 Winter Olympics are to be held in less than three weeks.
In addition to controlling people from leaving the city, authorities called on Tianjin's 13.9 million inhabitants to be tested twice, on January 10 and 12.
On Chinese social networks, locals shared photos and videos of the huge queues generated by the massive testing campaign.
Stephanie Yamaniski is a Brazilian woman who has been living in Tianjin with her husband since May 2021. She has been documenting her daily life under the return of Covid-19 on her Instagram page, where she has more than 50,000 followers.
'I feel a lot safer being here than in my home country'
Yamaniski shared her experience with the FRANCE 24 Observers team.
When the pandemic started, we were living in Hong Kong, and when we arrived in China, everything was controlled, no new cases for months, people did’t need to wear masks in the streets… So now is the first time I am experiencing all the Covid measures to control the spread. This is all new for me, so this is the reason I am sharing the whole process.
Authorities set up 279 PCR testing sites throughout Tianjin. On the evening of January 13, there had been 164 total positive cases recorded in this new outbreak. Those who tested negative were given a "green health pass" valid for 48 hours, permitting them to take transport and leave the city.
However, travel between Tianjin and Beijing, which will host the Olympic Games starting on February 4, has come to a virtual standstill. Most stations in Tianjin have suspended ticket sales to the capital and people who travel daily between Tianjin and Beijing have been asked to stay at home. Travel is expected to resume under stricter supervision than for other destinations.
In principle, there will be no strict lockdown in the city. The authorities put schools, colleges and universities on early holiday starting January 11. Yamaniski explained:
Schools are closed, because the focus on this last wave was a child care centre, so Tianjin cancelled all classes.
Restaurants, shopping and companies can still work, if all staff have been tested and present a negative result, but the government has advised people to work from home until further notice.
It's safe here and there is no risk now. From both waves of mass testing, they only identified around 100 cases out of 14 million people!
I feel a lot safer being here than in my home country, where most of the population has gotten Covid. [Editor's note: As of January 17, 2022, Brazil has officially registered 23 million total cases, out of a population of 212 million, so more than 10 percent of the population may have contracted the virus].
Chinese social networks have also been filled with "positive" images around the rallying phrase "Tianjin Jiayou", or "Tianjin courage", as in this video of a teenager playing the cello in the queue at a testing site on January 12.
Yamaniski said she experienced a China where Covid-19 seemed like a distant memory – because any local transmission of the virus has been met with strict policies.
Authorities have been quickly deploying large-scale systems to detect cases and curtail transmissions. They begin by tracing the close circle of the first detected case, extending to the entire population depending on the number of positive cases.
This could result in a strict lockdown of the city where a positive case was recorded, cutting it off from the rest of China. This was the case for Wuhan at the beginning of the pandemic, or Xi'an, where 13 million residents have been under lockdown since December 22, 2021, after around 100 positive cases were recorded in less than two weeks.
Residents of Xi'an haven't been able to leave their homes, to the point that many of them have reportedly suffered from a lack of food.
The grocery shopping crowds in Tianjin today - some called it 'panic buying', others said people were just doing what they should do after facing a lockdown and seeing what happened in Xi'an. pic.twitter.com/HNlue6ozzR— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) January 9, 2022
For the moment, this is not the scene in Tianjin, but some residents have turned to "panic buying" after the announcement of the first cases and testing campaigns.
Several videos circulating since January 9 show supermarkets stormed by residents.
One of them shows people fighting over cabbages, while others show empty shelves and long queues outside. Some people online have also said that prices have increased.
These videos have caused concern online, spurring some Tianjin residents to post photos of their own supermarkets to assure others that there are places with no shortages or panics.
'People were fighting over cabbage because you can store it a long time'
Nini Wang (not his real name) is an artist living in Tianjin. He filmed a scene in a market in eastern Tianjin on January 9. The video shows aisles full of people and a long queue at the entrance. He told us that prices jumped that day as early as 9am, when the last cabbages were grabbed by shoppers.
People were fighting over cabbage because you can store it a long time. So in case the city or neighbourhood is quarantined, you can eat cabbage for a while. The same goes for potatoes, sweet potatoes and onions.
Wang has since published a video of another market in Tianjin, this one more calm.
Supplies are sufficient now, prices have stabilised and thefts have stopped.
I'm about to be tested for a third time, which should allow me to go back to work in person. It's estimated that we'll have to have six tests in all. At the beginning, it was very confusing, but now for the third test, it's much faster – no more than half an hour.
There shouldn't be a massive outbreak like there was in Xi'an, there's a a concerted effort to control it.
The evening of January 13, China recorded 124 new cases in 24 hours, including 41 in Tianjin. Several towns and villages in Henan, a province east of Xi'an, have been put under quarantine. In all, 29 million people in China are currently under lockdown.