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With lockdown fears looming, Beijing is testing millions for COVID

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Shanghai has been under COVID lockdown for weeks. And residents in the Chinese capital, Beijing, fear they could be next. Cases are spreading, and the city's most populous district has begun three rounds of testing for all 3.6 million residents. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Chinese).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hundreds of masked people in line; a loudspeaker blaring, show your ID; stand a meter apart. It's a COVID testing line outside my Beijing apartment. Familiar scenes like this are repeating themselves across Chaoyang District, Beijing's largest, because all residents need to get three tests by the end of this week. That directive has been widely interpreted as the prelude to a citywide lockdown ala Shanghai. There, authorities first mandated mass testing, then shut residents in their apartments for going on four weeks, hence the lockdown fears in Beijing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Those fears prompted long lines throughout the day outside supermarkets. People are hoarding food in case they're stuck at home and dependent on government deliveries for sustenance. Miss Ying was one of the shoppers hauling bags of food back home. She didn't want to give her full name due to political sensitivities around talking about China's COVID policy.

YING: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: She says she bought oil and flour because she wants to be able to make her own noodles in quarantine. She also bought just one week's worth of root vegetables. It's important not to panic, she says. But Beijing is preparing for extreme contingencies. To the north of the city is a state isolation ward with 1,000 beds for any positive cases or close contacts, which the government adapted from an old SARS treatment facility. And Beijing is now building more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: A lone worker plays his squeaky erhu, a stringed instrument, outside Beijing's Chaoyang sports stadium. Posters pasted outside the locked door say it will soon be turned into a second isolation ward.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: The stadium is a backup, says an employee nearby, in case Beijing's existing isolation wards overflow. A Beijing lockdown would be disastrous economically and politically, but with more infectious variants in the mix and a mandate to bring daily case counts to zero, a lockdown is the only option left right now in Beijing's toolkit. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "DAYDREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.