Beijing has been rocked by a massive Covid outbreak which has left shops and businesses closed and its streets empty.
The Chinese capital resembles Shanghai when it was locked down in April and May, however this time people have stayed at home, either because they are ill or want to avoid getting the infection.
James Zimmerman, a Beijing-based lawyer and former American Chamber of Commerce in China chairman, said in a Twitter post on Wednesday that about 90% of people in his office had Covid, which was up from around half a few days ago.
“Our ‘work at home’ policy is now ‘work at home if you’re well enough.’ This thing came on like a runaway freight train,” he said.
There were similar scenes all across Beijing, with offices and shopping centres closed, understaffed or managing with new work arrangements because many staff are now working at home or down with a Covid infection.
Infections are also rising in the cities of Wuhan and Chengdu, as well as in Hebei province, according to medical staff, social media posts and state press reports.
Long queues outside fever clinics – buildings attached to hospitals that screen for infectious diseases – have been a common sight in Beijing and other cities in recent days. National health authorities said that as of Wednesday they have opened over 47,000 such clinics.
A growing number of China’s doctors and nurses have also caught Covid and hospitals in big cities are already showing signs of strain.
Some hospitals in Beijing have up to 80% of their staff infected, but many are still required to work due to staff shortages, a doctor at a large public hospital in Beijing said, adding that all operations had been cancelled unless the patient is “dying tomorrow”.
Meanwhile, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) conceded defeat on Wednesday, saying it had given up trying to keep track of all the new Covid cases and would no longer include asymptomatic infections in its daily tallies.
“It is impossible to accurately grasp the actual number of asymptomatic infections,” the NHC said in a notice, citing reduced levels of official testing.
Infections have surged over the past week to the point where the local emergency hotline has been overwhelmed by over 30,000 calls a day.
So, officials are now reminding people with mild or no symptoms to refrain from using the special line meant for emergency medical assistance.
International health authorities are closely watching the situation in China now that the government has discarded its strict zero-Covid policy, amid concern hospitals could be hit with a flood of patients as the coronavirus spreads.
China announced major changes last week to testing and quarantine rules after widespread protests against mass lockdowns, which had negative economic impacts and took a toll on citizens’ mental well-being.
The World Health Organisation has warned that the country faces “very tough” times. And with state media reporting the arrival of seriously ill patients at hospitals in Beijing, there are fears of a wave of infections now the spread of the virus is no longer closely monitored.
China has staged a dramatic U-turn – from waging a war on the pandemic to re-educating citizens on the harmlessness of the Omicron variant and pushing the idea of self-care.
This was a stark change that surprised many people, but the public health message is: Do not worry.
The country’s massive propaganda machine has been assuring people through news reports, public advisories and media briefings that most will have mild or no symptoms if they are infected and can self-isolate at home.
“Be the first person responsible for the epidemic”, it has said, which is emerging as China’s new public health slogan.
However the mood in Shanghai, the commercial capital, which endured a horror lockdown earlier this year, appeared to be quite different initially, with many residents out shopping or gathering with friends at restaurants and soaking up the Christmas spirit at crowded fairs.
But now at least seven schools have refused to hold in-person classes and are conducting classes online amid a rise in cases in the country’s biggest city.
‘Omicron is Weaker’
The suddenness of China’s policy shift has not yet been explained to the public, although officials have stated that Omicron has weakened.
But they have not said why they did not start preparing the population earlier, such as ramping up vaccinations among the elderly. Omicron was first detected in China in late 2021.
Elation about the policy change has faded amid mounting signs that China may pay a price for shielding a population that lacks “herd immunity” and has low vaccination rates among the elderly.
It also lacks mRNA vaccines produced by Western firms such as Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna that have helped citizens in other countries to counter the coronavirus.
That has led to a flood of Chinese flying from the mainland to Macau in a rush to get BioNTech’s messenger-RNA vaccine Comirnaty, which is not available currently on the mainland.
“It’s always very difficult for any country coming out of a situation where you’ve had very, very tight controls,” WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris told a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday, adding that China faced a “very tough and difficult time.”
The WHO typically refrains from commenting on individual countries’ policies, although agency director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus did say in May that China’s previous Covid regime was not sustainable.
“The tone now will be how China is not going to see mass deaths, there will be few severe cases, and how the country managed to deal with a surge of cases without incurring lots of deaths – I think that will be the main narrative in the coming months,” said Yanzhong Huang, a global health specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a US think tank.
Covid Cases Drop as Cases Soar
Official Covid case counts in China have been trending lower in recent weeks, but that has coincided with a drop in testing and is increasingly at odds with the situation on the ground, analysts say.
There were 50 severe and critical cases in hospitals in Beijing, most of whom have underlying health conditions, state news agency Xinhua reported late on Tuesday. Such numbers are small considering China’s 1.4 billion population, but there are growing fears that hospitals could soon be flooded with cases.
Amid the uncertainty, Chinese leaders delayed a key economic policy meeting, which had been set to map out much-needed stimulus for the world’s second largest economy.
The annual Central Economic Work Conference will now be held from Thursday to Friday, sources have said.
Policy insiders and business analysts said the leadership is expected to map out further stimulus steps and discuss growth targets in the meeting, which is normally held over three days.
Economists estimate that China’s growth has slowed to around 3% this year, far below the official target of around 5.5%, marking one of the worst performances in almost half a century.
The International Monetary Fund warned in November of a possible downgrade to China’s GDP. It’s chief Kristalina Georgieva said that was now “very likely” after a recent Covid-19 surge, AFP news agency reported on Tuesday.
In the three years since the pandemic erupted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, China’s has reported just 5,235 COVID-related deaths – a tiny fraction of its population, and extremely low by global standards.
Its last fatalities were reported on December 3, before the country started the loosening of curbs.
China’s Health Commission also said it would roll out second Covid vaccine booster shots for high-risk groups and elderly people over 60 years old.
Long queues outside fever clinics, buildings attached to hospitals that screen for infectious diseases in mainland China, have been a common sight in Beijing and other cities in recent days.
Indeed, some clinics have been so crowded patients have been waiting in their cars to see doctors, with IV drips attached through open windows.
Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees China’s Covid efforts, has called for more fever clinics to be set up and better protection for vulnerable people during an inspection of Beijing’s healthcare facilities, Xinhua reported.
- Jim Pollard with Reuters
NOTE: This report was updated several times with further details and links, and the photo and headline changed, on Wednesday December 14, 2022.