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A visitor takes a photo of blossoms at the Beijing Zoo after it reopened its outdoor exhibit areas to the public for the first time since they were closed amid the coronavirus outbreak, on March 24, 2020. The zoo and parts of the Great Wall of China have reopened to visitors who book in advance, as the capital slowly returns to normal amid a sharp fall in the number of new coronavirus cases.

Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press

Scenes unimaginable even a week ago have returned to China’s capital. Crowds of people gathering in restaurants and clustering around plants for sale at a sidewalk fair. A weekend crush of cars in entertainment districts followed by suffocating weekday traffic on commuter routes. Subways growing busier as dispatchers send cars down the line at the unusually rapid rate of one every 118 seconds.

The ebullient race to normal has swept China, with Li Lanjuan, one of the country’s top epidemiologists, this week declaring an “interim victory” over the deadly new coronavirus. On Tuesday, a Communist Party-backed newspaper published a headline declaring “China’s win over COVID-19.”

Many provinces have reopened schools. Local officials across China have publicly dined out on roast duck and attended meetings without facial coverings. “We can infuse everyone in the city and the world with confidence by taking off our masks,” Shanghai Vice-Mayor Wu Qing said last week.

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But the history of pandemics – in particular the multiple outbreaks of Spanish flu in 1918 and 1919 – suggests it may be early for triumphalism, and specialists in infectious diseases have warned that China is rushing to revive its economy even though most of the country has had little exposure to the virus and remains susceptible to COVID-19.

“Because most of China hasn’t really had a significant number of infections in the first wave … there’s still enormous vulnerability of the population to being infected and to having a large epidemic,” said Benjamin Cowling, an epidemiologist at Hong Kong University.

“A second wave is inevitable, sooner or later,” he said. “Totally inevitable. There’s no question.” He warned about the possibility of a “silent spread” by people with mild or no symptoms that go undetected for months until enough cases emerge that the virus once again becomes difficult to contain.

Chinese authorities have continued to call for vigilance.

But across the country, the public is dispensing with the epidemic fear that kept people locked inside for many weeks. In Beijing, social-distancing regulations remain formally in place, including restrictions on restaurant seating, but enforcement has grown noticeably more lax. (Although many restaurants remain closed.) In Shanghai and Shenzhen, commuting volumes are within a few percentage points of normal for this time of year, data gathered by Chinese mapping companies Baidu and AutoNavi shows.

The Chinese epicentre of the virus is also releasing the choke hold that has kept tens of millions of people locked down since late January. On Wednesday, China will restore transportation links to places in Hubei province outside Wuhan, opening the way for healthy people in those places to depart. On April 8, those with medical clearance will also be able to leave Wuhan, the hardest-hit city.

China’s confidence comes in part from the strict measures it has taken to make itself an island apart from the outbreaks raging elsewhere. No flights from outside China, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan can directly enter Beijing at the moment. Instead, they have been diverted to a dozen nearby airports.

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Lucia Peng, 19, boarded a Hainan Airlines plane in Toronto that landed at 8:20 p.m. Sunday in Taiyuan, a city in Shanxi province 400 kilometres southwest of Beijing. Everyone on board was rigorously screened for signs of fever. Ms. Peng, a business student at the University of Toronto, was told the plane was carrying almost 300 passengers. Only 49 eventually made it to Beijing, landing in the capital 12 hours after first arriving in Taiyuan – after a 14-hour flight from Toronto.

In Beijing, they were taken for 14 days of quarantine, most to hotels designated for that purpose that now house tens of thousands of international arrivals.

Such strict measures should “protect Beijing, because there are countless checks,” Ms. Peng said.

Indeed, every day authorities identify dozens of infected travellers. China now counts 427 “imported” cases of the virus, although almost 90 per cent of those are Chinese citizens.

But authorities have also reported that those quarantine measures have not been airtight, confirming Tuesday that at least two people in China have been infected by recent overseas arrivals. Another pair of COVID-19 cases were people who had contact with people in Hubei province, including a Wuhan doctor who may have contracted the virus at a hospital.

Chinese medical workers have also said they are not counting asymptomatic infections as cases, despite indications that as many as a third of COVID-19 cases are “silent carriers,” the South China Morning Post has reported. Such people are believed to be able to infect others despite showing no signs of illness.

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That prospect worries Ms. Peng. “It’s super scary. It’s not clear that temperature can be used as the only means to judge whether a person is infected.”

Chinese medical leaders have nonetheless expressed confidence in their ability to detect and isolate infected people. “There isn’t much risk of people bringing the virus directly into China given the measures we’ve taken,” said Ma Jin, executive director of the School of Public Health at Shanghai Jiaotong University.

“I don’t think there will be a large-scale outbreak in the future. If we absorb all of the experience we have already gained and adhere to the relevant regulations, we will handle it well,” he said.

Still, he acknowledged that the effort to counter COVID-19 must continue, even in a country thrilling to the idea of victory over the virus.

“The fight against this coronavirus will be a long-term battle,” he said. “We must be prepared, not just for a second wave, but for each day and month until a vaccine is successfully produced and proven effective.”

With reporting by Alexandra Li

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