People take a PCR test in Beijing on June 17, 2020 – Newscom

China’s latest cluster outbreak in Beijing, at 137 cases over the last six days, is the worst resurgence of the coronavirus since early February. 

It came as a bit of a surprise, ending a nearly two-month streak of zero cases in the country’s capital. 

Authorities have taken no chances, immediately moving to institute partial lockdowns by quarantining housing compounds with infections, halting outbound transport links, and closing schools – again. 

Public transport within the city is enforcing social distancing measures, cutting capacity by as much as half to allow passengers more space.

In Beijing, life is being disrupted only about a week after containment measures were finally relaxed and residents were just beginning to get excited about spending summer with greater mobility. Dining al fresco and riding a bike seemed novel concepts after months of being shuttered indoors.

The outbreak is a reminder of what disease experts have repeatedly stressed – that it will be impossible to get to zero coronavirus cases forever given how the disease spreads, even in a country that has instituted draconian lockdowns and quarantine measures. 

Until the virus mutates to become less dangerous to humans, an effective vaccine is developed, or robust treatment measures are discovered, authorities in China and around the world will need to consider how best to quickly respond to contain subsequent waves. 

In China, authorities mobilised quickly after tracing the outbreak to Xinfadi wholesale food market, which supplies the majority of groceries sold in Beijing. Exactly how the virus emerged there remains under investigation.

After shutting the market, officials engaged in aggressive contact tracing by canvassing neighbourhoods using a “knock, knock” method – making individual house and phone calls to check people’s travel and contact history. 

Anyone found to have visited the market in the last two weeks, or having close contact with someone who had, was then sent for testing. Beijing officials have now tested about 356,000 people since June 14. 

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Whether or not quarantines are required depends on test results, and whether residents live in areas deemed high-risk – based on how many infections were found in the area.

Outside of Beijing, most provinces have also quickly moved to institute mandatory quarantines of as long as 21 days for travellers arriving from the capital city.

For many countries, it’s impossible to impose lockdowns forever, especially as governments are eager to get economies back on track and for life to resume some sense of normalcy. 

But as demonstrated by second – and even third waves – of the virus appearing in China and elsewhere, authorities must also design appropriate emergency responses for the new normal of living with a new and fast-spreading disease.

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