Uncertainty remains as China’s COVID-19 restrictions ease

Beijing –

Uncertainty remained over the direction of the pandemic in the world’s most populous country on Thursday, a week after China dramatically eased some of the world’s strictest COVID-19 containment measures.

While there are no official signs yet of the massive surge in critically ill patients that some fear, social media posts, business closures and other anecdotal evidence point to large numbers of people being infected. In Beijing and elsewhere, cold medicines and testing kits are in high demand. Some hospital workers stayed home while others returned to work after becoming infected.

Meanwhile, sales of a variety of everyday items have soared as people went online to share dubious “remedies”. Canned yellow peaches, seen as particularly nutritious, sold out, prompting one of the biggest producers to write on social media that canned yellow peaches are not medicine and that supplies are plentiful.

After years of trying to track the virus down to its last infection, the government now says that’s largely impossible — but it’s unclear what that means for reporting the worst cases.

While big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen have invested heavily in health care, second- and third-tier cities and communities in the vast rural hinterland have far fewer resources to deal with major outbreaks.

For various economic and cultural reasons, Chinese people tend to rely more on hospitals than citizens of other countries, even for minor illnesses. Xi Chen, a professor of public health at Yale University, said the government had asked people with mild symptoms to recuperate at home, but if they didn’t it could lead to tension.

“If people don’t have this culture of staying home and reserving these resources for people who are sick, the system can easily collapse,” Chen said.

So far, the number of fever clinics in Beijing has more than tripled to more than 300. The fever clinics visited by AP reporters were generally calm and orderly, with little sign of overcrowding. One children’s hospital had a line of 50 or 60 people on Wednesday afternoon, but the lines at the other three were shorter. At a clinic in southern Beijing, several elderly patients were receiving intravenous drips and one patient was inhaling pressurized oxygen.

While the health care systems in big cities appear to be fine so far, Chen cautioned that it was too early to tell when cases would peak. The Lunar New Year in January — when millions of people go out to visit relatives — is expected to present another challenge, Chen said.

“I’m concerned this could be a super-spreader event,” he said.

Winter is also a tough time to loosen restrictions because the virus spreads more easily, Chen said.

Other concerns include increasing vaccination rates among older Chinese people and strengthening the country’s critical care capacity. While most of China’s population is vaccinated, millions of elderly people have yet to receive a booster shot of the country’s domestic vaccine. Studies have shown that the Chinese vaccine is effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths, but requires at least three doses to be fully effective.

China says about 30% of people aged 60 or over have not yet received three shots. The hesitation was partly due to an initial government directive discouraging people over the age of 59 from getting the vaccine, but there were also longstanding concerns about the safety of Chinese vaccines.

On Wednesday, the government said it would provide a fourth dose of the vaccine to vulnerable groups.

Central Beijing was largely empty on Thursday, with few customers at businesses and restaurants that remained open or had not significantly reduced hours. Empty streets reflect both the fact that many sick people are staying at home and that others do not want to take risks to avoid infection.

A growing number of experts say China’s “zero COVID” policy of lockdowns, quarantines and mandatory testing is unsustainable, especially in the face of more contagious omicron variants leading to ever-tighter restrictions.

The measures have been accused of hampering economic development and causing enormous social pressure. The easing came after Beijing and several other cities saw protests over the restrictions turn into calls for the resignation of President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party — a level of public dissent not seen in decades.

While the easing of measures on December 7 has provided more avenues for the spread of the coronavirus across the country, the full impact is unclear.

On the economic front, the news was mixed. China’s industrial output rose a moderate 2.2% year-on-year, while the urban unemployment rate edged up to 5.7% in November from 5.5% the previous month, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Thursday. China does not survey unemployment rates outside major cities.

Meanwhile, the company that assembles Apple’s iPhones announced on Wednesday that it was easing restrictions at its largest factory in China, which has prompted thousands of workers to quit and sharply slowed production. Foxconn Technology Group said it would end a “closed loop” system that required workers to speak in workplaces and dormitories.

Xi Jinping’s government remains formally committed to stopping the spread of the virus. But the latest move suggests the Communist Party will tolerate more cases without quarantining or shutting down travel or businesses.

National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng reiterated the shift in tone on Thursday.

“Currently, the focus of epidemic prevention and control has shifted from infection prevention and control to medical treatment,” Mi said at the briefing.

The task of gauging China’s readiness is made more difficult by a lack of reliable statistics and forecasts.

The only numbers currently reported by the National Health Commission are confirmed cases detected in public testing facilities showing symptoms.

Earlier this week, the government stopped reporting the total number of asymptomatic cases, saying it could not be counted accurately. The results of home tests will also not be captured.

China’s official death toll remains low at 5,235, compared with 1.1 million in the United States. However, public health experts caution that the statistics cannot be directly compared.

Chinese health authorities only count those who died directly from COVID-19, excluding those whose underlying conditions were exacerbated by the virus. In many other countries, guidelines state that any death where COVID-19 was a factor or contributing factor counts as a COVID-related death.

Experts say this is a long-standing practice in China, but there have been occasional questions about whether officials are trying to minimize the number.


Associated Press news assistant Caroline Chen and researcher Bing Yu in Beijing and writer Huizhong Wu in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.

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