February 4, 2023

Filipino Guardian

Sentinels of Filipino Free Press

‘Go all out’: China braces for spread of infections after COVID policy reversal

REUTERS

BEIJING/SHANGHAI — China on Friday prioritized protecting rural communities from the spread of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as millions of city dwellers planned vacations for the first time in years after Beijing lifted its strict regime of lockdowns and travel restrictions.

China’s move last week to align with a world that has largely opened up to living with the virus follows historic protests against President Xi Jinping’s signature “zero-COVID” policy aimed at stamping out COVID.

But the excitement met by that dramatic reversal has quickly given way to concerns that China is unprepared for the coming wave of infections, though officials have sought to downplay the dangers posed by the less severe new strain of COVID-19.

China reported 2,157 new symptomatic COVID-19 infections as of Dec. 15, compared to 2,000 a day. However, the official figures are less reliable as testing has declined. It also stopped reporting asymptomatic numbers on Wednesday.

Ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday, which begins Jan. 22, there are particular concerns about China’s hinterland.

Rural areas are likely to be inundated with travelers returning to their hometowns and villages, which have had little exposure to the virus in the three years since the pandemic broke out.

China’s National Health Commission said Friday it is expanding immunizations, particularly for the elderly, and building up stocks of ventilators, essential medicines and testing kits in rural areas.

Mainland China’s international borders remain largely closed, but recent decisions to halt testing before domestic travel and disable apps that tracked people’s travel history have allowed people to move around the country.

Several cities, including the capital Beijing and those in southwest Sichuan, central Hunan and eastern Zhejiang and Anhui provinces, have also opened new vaccination centers to encourage the public to get booster shots, state-run newspaper Global Times reported.

“Go all out” was the message from China’s state-owned wealth regulator in a statement late Thursday, urging state drugmakers to ensure supplies of COVID-related drugs.

There are increasing signs of chaos on the streets as China changes course – including long lines outside fever clinics, rushes for medicines and panic buying across the country.

SF Express, one of China’s largest courier companies, said on its official WeChat account that it had dispatched workers from across the country to keep deliveries in Beijing running despite staff shortages and rising demand.

It also said it had started a “fast lane” for emergency supplies such as medicines and daily necessities, with demand in the capital in recent days surging 300% above normal levels.

The COVID scare in China also prompted people in Hong Kong, Macau and some parts of Australia to seek fever medicine and testing kits for family and friends on the mainland.

“TRANSITIONAL PAIN”
For all its efforts to contain the virus since its outbreak in downtown Wuhan in late 2019, China may now pay a price for protecting a population that lacks “herd immunity” and has low vaccination rates among the elderly, analysts said.

That has hurt prospects for a short-term recovery in growth, even if opening up should eventually revitalize the world’s second-largest economy.

JP Morgan on Friday revised downwards its expectations for China’s growth in 2022 to 2.8%, well below China’s official target of 5.5% and one of China’s worst performances in nearly half a century.

China is preparing for “a period of transitional pain,” bank analysts said, adding they expect infections to spike in the months following the Lunar New Year holiday before the economy starts to recover in mid-2023.

Investors are also awaiting government plans to revive the ailing economy.

President Xi, his ruling Politburo and top government officials are holding their annual Central Economic Work Conference this week, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

However, state media is unusually silent about the meeting, and Bloomberg reported earlier this week that the start of the conference has been delayed due to rising infections in Beijing. – Reuters