China’s zero-coronavirus easing: Beijing cases surge, streets empty, daily life disrupted

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Empty streets, deserted shopping malls and residents staying away from one another are the new normal in Beijing — but not because the city is under a “Covid-free” lockdown like many Chinese cities before it.

This time, it was as Beijing was hit by a severe and spreading outbreak – the first in the Chinese capital since the start of the pandemic, a week after leaders eased the country’s restrictive Covid policies.

The impact of the outbreak in the city could be clearly seen on Tuesday in Sanlitun, an upscale shopping district. There, the normally bustling shops and restaurants are empty of customers and, in some cases, have only skeleton staff or only offer takeout.

Similar scenarios are playing out across Beijing, with offices, stores and residential communities reporting understaffing or changes in work arrangements as employees contract the virus. Meanwhile, others stayed home to avoid infection.

Anti-epidemic workers wear PPE to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while standing guard outside a closed community in Beijing, China, November 29, 2022.

Expert: China fails to prepare residents when zero-coronavirus policy ends

A community worker told CNN that 21 of the 24 staff at her Beijing neighborhood committee office, which coordinates residents’ affairs and activities, have been sick in recent days.

“Because most of our supervisors were infected, there wasn’t much work for us,” said the employee, Sylvia Sun. “(The usual) events, lectures, performances, parent-child activities will definitely not take place.”

Beijing, which had already experienced small outbreaks before the new rules, is now on the front lines of China’s new reality: Chinese cities have never had measures in place to deal with an outbreak without strict controls since the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan.

But for a place that was meticulously tracking every case until earlier this month, there is no clear data yet on how far the virus has spread. China’s coronavirus rules have significantly reduced the testing requirements that once dominated daily life, with residents switching to using antigen tests at home, making official figures unreliable.

Customers line up at a pharmacy in Beijing, China, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022.

On Wednesday, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) abandoned its attempt to track all new Covid cases, announcing that it would no longer include asymptomatic infections in its daily counts. It had previously reported the cases, although they were in a different category than “confirmed” or symptomatic cases.

“The actual number of asymptomatic infections cannot be accurately grasped,” the National Health Commission said in a notice, citing a drop in official testing levels.

Authorities reported Wednesday morning that the previous day there had been 2,249 symptomatic Covid cases across the country, 20 per cent of which were detected in the capital. Those numbers are also thought to have been impacted by a drop in testing. CNN reporting from Beijing suggests that the total number of cases in the Chinese capital may be many times higher than the number of recorded cases.

James Zimmerman, a Beijing-based lawyer and former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said on Twitter that about 90% of the people in his office had the virus, up from about half a few days earlier.

“Our ‘work from home’ policy is now ‘work from home if you’re well.’ This has come like a runaway freight train,” he wrote on Wednesday.

Experts say the relatively small number of previously infected Covid-19 patients in China and the low effectiveness of its widely used inactivated virus vaccine against Omicron infection – compared with previous strains and mRNA vaccines – may make the The virus spreads rapidly.

Ben, chair professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, said: “The current strains will spread faster in China than they can in other parts of the world, which have some immunity to previous waves of infection with earlier Omicron strains. Force” fairing.

A closed Covid testing station in Beijing, China, Tuesday, Dec. 13.

The extent of severe illness or death in the Covid-19 outbreak often takes time to become clear, but there are signs of an impact on the healthcare system – with Beijing authorities urging patients who are not seriously ill not to seek emergency help services.

The city’s main hospital recorded 19,000 flu-like patients from Dec. 5 to 11, more than six times the number in the previous week, a health official said Monday.

The number of patients visiting fever clinics on Sunday was 16 times that of a week ago. In China, where there is no strong primary care system, hospital visits for minor ailments are common.

However, Sun Chunlan, China’s top official in charge of managing the COVID-19 outbreak, said during a tour of Beijing’s outbreak response on Tuesday that so far there were only 50 severe and critical cases in hospitals, most of whom had underlying health problems.

“Currently, the number of new infections in Beijing is increasing rapidly, but most are asymptomatic and mild cases,” said Sun, who has been hit by a surge in purchases in recent days – and is increasing.

Zhang Wenhong, a prominent Shanghai doctor, warned that hospitals should do everything in their power to ensure that medical staff do not become infected as quickly as people in the communities they serve. The situation could lead to shortages of medical staff and infections among patients, he said, according to local media reports.

Concerns about the scarcity and availability of medicines and care are evident in public discourse, including on social media. There, a Beijing journalist’s account of her experience with Covid-19 treatment in a makeshift hospital set off a social media storm, with the hashtag garnering more than 93 million views on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, since Monday.

Social media users questioned why the reporter, who showed her two-bedroom apartment and fever-reducing medicine in a video interview released by her employer Beijing Radio and Television Station on Sunday, received such treatment while others struggled.

“Amazing! A young reporter got a vacant seat in a makeshift hospital and gave the kids liquid ibuprofen, which is hard to find for parents in Beijing,” read one sarcastic comment, which read: The comment got thousands of likes.

Another popular response is to complain about “ordinary people” staying at home with their children and elderly people with high fevers.

“If I call (the hospital), can you give me (her) bed?” the Weibo user asked.

Concerned about the virus, residents have been buying canned peaches amid rumors that the vitamin C-rich snack can prevent or treat Covid. Chinese state media has since warned people that preserved fruit is neither a cure for the coronavirus nor a substitute for it.

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