A WOMAN walks across the street during the morning rush hour in Chaoyang district, Beijing, China November 21. — REUTERS
BEIJING — A week after China began dismantling its strict “zero-COVID” controls, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of “very tough” times ahead and state media reported some critically ill patients in hospitals in Beijing, which raised fears of a surge of infections.
China announced sweeping changes to testing and quarantine rules last Wednesday, aligning with a world that has largely reopened after historic protests over mass lockdowns that left millions mentally distressed but kept the virus at bay.
The enthusiasm that greeted these changes has quickly faded amid mounting evidence that China may pay a price for protecting a population that lacks “herd immunity” and has low vaccination rates among the elderly.
“It’s always very difficult for any country to get out of a situation where you had very, very tight controls,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said at a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday, adding that China is facing a “very tough one.” and difficult times”. ”
The WHO normally refrains from commenting on individual countries’ policies, although the agency’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in May that China’s previous COVID regime was unsustainable.
The number of official COVID cases in China has been falling in recent weeks, but that has coincided with a drop in testing and is increasingly at odds with the situation on the ground.
There were 50 serious and critical cases in hospitals in Beijing, most of whom had pre-existing conditions, state-run Xinhua news agency reported late Tuesday. Those numbers are small given China’s 1.4 billion population, but there are growing fears this was just the start of the next wave.
China has not reported any COVID-related deaths since December 3, before the country began easing curbs.
“This is the price we pay to be freer,” a 26-year-old surnamed Liu, who works in marketing, told Reuters on the streets of the capital.
“Now it is important that we improve our awareness of self-protection. I think now the risk depends on individuals,” she added, asking for anonymity.
Long lines outside fever clinics, buildings attached to hospitals that search for infectious diseases in mainland China, have been a common sight in Beijing and other cities in recent days.
In Shanghai, China’s most populous city, at least seven schools have announced they will halt in-person classes due to COVID cases, with classes going online, according to parents and releases from Reuters.
Infections are expected to spread across the country in the coming weeks as some people who have been unable to travel return to their hometowns and villages.
State media reports on Wednesday said daily traffic flows at the main train station in the technology hub of Hangzhou more than doubled to 128,000 as young people headed home.
The mass movement of people will culminate in the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins Jan. 22, after domestic travel has been restricted for the past three years.
The National Health Commission said it will roll out the second COVID-19 vaccine boosters for high-risk groups and the elderly over 60.
It also said it would no longer report new asymptomatic COVID-19 infections as many stopped participating in testing.
In the three years since the pandemic broke out in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, China has reported just 5,235 COVID-related deaths – a tiny fraction of its population and extremely low by global standards.
Top Chinese health officials have downplayed the threat posed by the disease and in recent weeks have pushed the idea of self-sufficiency, a dramatic reversal from previous reports that the virus must be eliminated.
But amid growing concerns about the spread of the virus, Chinese leaders have reportedly postponed a key economic policy meeting that laid out much-needed stimulus for the world’s second-largest economy.
A report by Bloomberg News Tuesday night, citing people familiar with the matter, said the meeting had been postponed and that there was no timetable for a postponement.
Policy insiders and economic analysts said the leadership is expected to finalize further stimulus moves and discuss growth targets at the annual three-day meeting.
Economists estimate China’s growth has slowed to about 3% this year, well below the official target of about 5.5%, one of its worst performances in nearly half a century.
The International Monetary Fund warned in November of a possible downgrade of China’s gross domestic product, or GDP. Her boss Kristalina Georgieva said it was now “very likely” following a recent COVID-19 surge, news outlet AFP reported on Tuesday.
China’s yuan, which is on track for its worst year since 1994 when China unified official and market exchange rates, weakened against the dollar on Wednesday, with traders also citing concerns about a renewed surge in infections. – Reuters