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Zero Covid in China: Country braces for impact as virus ‘spreads rapidly’

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s news bulletin Meanwhile in China, a tri-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and its impact on the world. Register here.


China is bracing for an unprecedented surge of Covid-19 cases after dismantling much of its repressive zero-Covid policy last week, with a leading expert warning that Omicron variants are ‘spreading rapidly’ and signs of an epidemic shaking the country’s capital.

Some businesses were shuttered in Beijing and the city’s streets were largely deserted over the weekend as residents fell ill or feared they might catch the virus. The largest public crowds seen were outside pharmacies and Covid-19 testing booths.

The China Youth Daily news outlet on Friday documented hour-long queues at a clinic in central Beijing and quoted unnamed experts calling on residents not to go to hospitals unless necessary.

Health workers in the capital were also grappling with an increase in emergency calls, including from many Covid-positive residents with mild or no symptoms, with a hospital official calling residents in several areas on Saturday. such cases not to call the city’s 911 type emergency services. align and tie up resources needed by critically ill people.

The daily volume of emergency calls has increased from its usual 5,000 to more than 30,000 in recent days, said Chen Zhi, chief medical officer of the Beijing Emergency Center, according to state media.

Covid was “spreading rapidly” through highly transmissible variants of Omicron in China, leading Covid-19 expert Zhong Nanshan said in an interview published by state media on Saturday.

“No matter how strong the prevention and control, it will be difficult to completely cut off the chain of transmission,” said Zhong, who has been a key public voice since the early days of the pandemic in 2020, as quoted by Xinhua.

The rapid return of nationwide testing and the switch of many people to using antigen tests at home has also made it difficult to assess the extent of the spread, with official data now looking meaningless.

Authorities recorded 8,626 Covid-19 cases across China on Sunday, down from 10,597 the previous day and peaking at more than 40,000 daily cases at the end of last month. CNN reports from Beijing indicate that the number of cases in the Chinese capital could be much higher than recorded.

A note seen on a residential building in Beijing is indicative of the wider situation, reading: “Due to the severe epidemic situation in recent days, the number of employees who can come to work is seriously insufficient, and normal operation of the apartment has been greatly affected and challenged.

The country is just days away from a major easing of its longstanding zero Covid measures, which has been a dizzying change for many Chinese living under tight government controls and has fueled a long-running narrative about the death of Covid-19.

Last Wednesday, top health officials made a drastic rollback from the mass testing, centralized quarantine and health code tracking rules they had relied on to control viral spread. Some aspects of these measures, such as the use of the health code in designated places and the central quarantine of serious cases, as well as the isolation of cases at home, remain.

The changes continued as authorities on Monday announced a deactivation of the “mobile route map” health tracking feature scheduled for the following day.

The system, which is separate from the health code scanning system still required in a small number of places in China, had used data from people’s cellphones to track their travel history over the past 14 days in the purpose of identifying those who have traveled to a city with an area designated “high risk” by the authorities.

It had been a point of contention for many Chinese, not least because of concerns that it was allowing local governments to adopt blanket policies barring entry to those who visited a city with a “high-risk area,” even if they haven’t been to those areas within that city.

But as the dismantling of parts of the zero Covid infrastructure gathers pace, questions are being raised about how the country’s health system will handle a mass outbreak.

Outside experts have warned that China may be underprepared to deal with the expected rise in cases, after the surprise decision to lift its measures following nationwide protests against the policy, the rise in the number of cases and rising economic costs.

Although Omicron can cause relatively milder disease compared to earlier variants, even a small number of severe cases could have a significant impact on the healthcare system in a country of 1.4 billion people.

Zhong, in the interview with state media, said the government’s top priority should now be booster shots, especially for the elderly and others most at risk, especially with the New Year. Chinese lunar which arrives next month – a peak period when city dwellers visit elderly relatives. and return to rural hometowns.

Health authorities on Sunday ordered improvements to medical capacity in rural areas by the end of the month.

Measures to be taken include increasing intensive care wards and beds, strengthening medical staff for intensive care and setting up more fever clinics, China’s National Health Commission said in a statement.

Meanwhile, experts have warned that a lack of experience with the virus – and years of state media coverage focusing on its dangers and impact abroad, before a recent change in tone – could pushing those who are not in critical need to seek medical care, which is even more overwhelming. systems.

Bob Li, a graduate student from Beijing, who tested positive for the virus on Friday, said he was not afraid of the virus, but his mother, who lives in the countryside, stayed awake all night to sleep. worry about him. “She finds the virus to be a very, very scary thing,” Li said.

“I think most people in rural China may have misunderstandings about the virus, which may stem from the state’s overhyping of this virus in the past two years. This is one of the reasons why people are so scared,” he said, adding that he always supported the government’s cautious handling of Covid-19 during the pandemic.

There are clear efforts to allay public concerns about Covid-19 – and its ripple effects, such as panic buying of drugs.

China’s market watchdog said on Friday there was a “temporary shortage” of some “hot-selling” drugs and vowed to crack down on price gouging, while major online retailer JD.com said last week that it was taking steps to ensure a stable supply after sales. for certain drugs increased 18 times this week over the same period in October.

A trending hashtag on the heavily moderated Chinese social media platform Weibo over the weekend featured a state media interview with a doctor in Beijing saying that people who tested positive for Covid-19 but did not had no symptoms or mild symptoms did not need to take medication to recover.

“People with asymptomatic inflections do not need medicine at all. It is enough to rest at home, maintain good mood and physical condition,” said Li Tongzeng, chief infectious disease physician at You An Hospital in Beijing, in an interview linked to a hashtag viewed more than 370 million times since Friday.

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