February 8, 2023

China struggles with Covid infections after restrictions eased

BEIJING (AP) — Cases of COVID-19 were reported Friday in schools and businesses across China after the ruling Communist Party eased anti-virus rules. It is trying to reverse a deepening economic downturn.

Although official data showed a drop in new cases, they no longer cover a large portion of the population after the government ended mandatory testing for many on Wednesday. It was part of a series of dramatic changes aimed at phasing out “zero Covid” restrictions It has confined millions of people to their homes and prompted protests and calls for President Xi Jinping to resign.

“There are very few people coming because there are so many cases,” said Gang Suping, a waiter at a Beijing restaurant.

In other cities, social media users reported that co-workers or classmates were sick, and some businesses were closed due to staff shortages. Many of those accounts could not be independently confirmed, suggesting how much the total case numbers may be higher than the official figure.

“I am literally speechless. Half of the company is sick, but they still won’t let us stay at home,” said a post signed by Tunnel Mouth on the popular Sina Weibo platform. The user did not provide a name in questions sent through an account that said the user was in Beijing.

The reports echo the experience of the United States, Europe and other countries that have struggled with outbreaks as they try to restore business activity. But they are a stark contrast to China, where “zero COVID,” aimed at isolating every case, has disrupted daily life and depressed economic activity but kept infection rates low.

Xi’s government began easing restrictions on November 11. Imports fell 10.9% in November, a sign of weak demand. Auto sales fell 26.5% in October.

“Easing COVID restrictions could lead to more outbreaks,” Eurasia Group’s Neil Thomas and Laura Glodman said in a statement. “But Beijing is unlikely to return to the extended blanket lockdowns that crippled the economy earlier this year.”

The changes suggest the ruling party is relaxing its goal of “zero COVID” to stop the spread of the virus, but officials say that strategy is still in place.

Public health experts and economists say the restrictions should be in place until at least mid-2023. Millions of elderly people need to be vaccinated, which will take months, and hospitals need to be strengthened to cope with the surge in cases, they say. Officials announced the vaccination campaign last week.

On Friday, the government reported 16,797 new cases, including 13,160 without symptoms. That was down a fifth from the previous day and less than half of last week’s daily peak of 40,000.

More changes were announced on Wednesday Allow people with mild Covid-19 to self-isolate at home instead of going to an isolation centre. This caused great irritation to the public.

The requirement for subway riders, supermarket shoppers and others to show negative virus tests has been dropped, though schools and hospitals still require them.

A post signed Where Dreams Begin Under Starlight by a user in the southwestern city of Dazhou, Sichuan province, said all but five students in a public school class of 46 were infected.

“It’s amazing that the school insists students go to school,” the user wrote. The user contacted through the account refused to provide name or other details.

In the past two years, the requirement to test millions of people as often as once a day in some areas has helped the government detect infections without symptoms. Completing that approach reduces the cost of tracking employees and customers in offices, stores and other businesses. But they increase the risk of spreading the virus.

This week’s changes follow protests that erupted on Nov. 25 in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities against the human cost of “zero COVID.”

It is unclear whether any changes were made in response to protests that died down following a security crackdown.

The ruling party’s Politburo announced on Wednesday that its priority was to stabilize weak economic growth, although leaders said local authorities still expected to protect the public.

“A re-cycle to growth and zero exit from COVID is evident from a high level,” Australian bank Macquarie Group’s Larry Hu and Yuxiao Zhang said in a statement. However, they cautioned, “uncertainties remain high,” and “how disruptive a zero-covid exit would be.”

After the economy shrank 2.6% from the previous quarter in the three months ended June, party leaders stopped talking about the official 5.5% annual growth target. It came after Shanghai and other industrial centers were shut down for up to two months to combat outbreaks.

Private sector economists cut forecasts for annual growth to below 3%, less than half of last year’s 8.1% and the weakest in decades.

Social media posts suggest there may be outbreaks in some cities, which are not reflected in official statistics.

18 people in Baoding, a city of 11 million southwest of Beijing, said in posts dated Thursday that they had tested positive using household equipment or had fever, sore throat and headache. Meanwhile, the Boding city government reported no new cases since Tuesday.

Drugstores were thronged with customers buying medicine for sore throats and headaches

On Friday, the market regulator announced that the price of some medicines, including the traditional fever treatment Lianhua Qingwen, had risen by as much as 500% in the past month. It said sellers could be penalized for price gouging.

Although it is unclear how many people seek treatment for Covid-19 symptoms, lines have formed outside hospitals.

People waited four to five hours to get into the flu clinic at Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing, according to a woman who answered the phone and gave only her surname, Sun. No virus test is required, but patients must show a smartphone “health code” app that tracks their vaccination status and whether they have traveled to areas with a high risk of infection, he said.

Hong Kong, which is implementing its own anti-virus strategy, has faced a similar rise in cases as the southern Chinese city tries to revive its struggling economy by easing restrictions on travel and the opening hours of restaurants and pubs.

Hong Kong reported 75,000 new cases last week, a 25% increase from the previous week. But the unknown number does not include the number of people who stay home with Covid-19 symptoms and do not report to the government.

___

AP correspondent Caroline Chen in Guangzhou, China, researcher Yu Ping in Beijing, and AP writers Kanis Leung in Hong Kong and Taek Kang in Beijing contributed to this report.