- People are taking steps to protect themselves after restrictions are lifted
- A senior official expects three waves this winter
- Lunar New Year in January to push further spread
BEIJING (Reuters) – The streets of major Chinese cities were quiet on Sunday as people stayed home to protect themselves from a surge in cases of the novel coronavirus that has hit urban centers from north to south.
China is in the first of three expected waves of COVID cases this winter, according to the country’s chief epidemiologist, Wu Zunyou. He said more waves will come as people follow the tradition of returning in droves to their home regions for the Lunar New Year holiday next month.
China has not reported any COVID-related deaths since December 7, when it abruptly ended most major restrictions of its zero-tolerance COVID policy after unprecedented public protests. President Xi Jinping has defended the strategy.
As part of easing COVID-free restrictions, mass testing for the virus has ended, casting doubt on whether official case numbers can capture the full scale of the outbreak. China reported about 2,097 new COVID-19 cases on December 17.
In Beijing, the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant has already affected services from catering to package delivery. Funeral homes and crematoriums across the city of 22 million are also struggling to keep up with demand amidst staff shortages with workers and drivers calling out sick.
At Beijing’s largest funeral parlour in Baboshan, also known for handling the bodies of high-ranking Chinese officials and leaders, several hearings per minute were seen entering on Sunday, while the private parking area was also full.
“At the moment it is difficult to book a hearing, so many relatives are transporting the body in their own cars,” said an employee who asked not to be identified.
Smoke rose from the crematoriums, where groups of people gathered to collect the ashes of the deceased. It was not immediately clear to what extent the rise in COVID-related deaths was responsible.
Posts on social media also showed empty subway stations in the northwestern Chinese city of Xi’an, while in Shanghai, the country’s commercial hub, there was no usual bustle in the run-up to the New Year.
“The festive vibes are missing,” said one resident who gave her name as Alice.
Streets in Chengdu are deserted, but food delivery times are improving after services have begun to adjust to the recent surge in cases, said a resident surnamed Zhang.
It remains difficult to obtain antigen test kits, she said, explaining that she was told that the kits she had recently ordered had been diverted to hospitals.
1 peak, 3 waves, 3 months
In Shanghai, authorities said schools must move most classes online from Monday, and in the nearby city of Hangzhou, most classes have been encouraged to end the winter term early.
Those attending online classes as well as pre-school students should not prepare for going back to school, said the Guangzhou Bureau of Education.
Speaking at a conference in Beijing on Saturday, the top epidemiologist from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said the current outbreak will peak this winter and will continue in three waves for about three months, according to a state media report of his speech.
The first wave will extend from mid-December to mid-January, largely in cities, before the second wave begins from late January to mid-February next year, due to the movement of people before the week-long New Year holidays.
China celebrates the Lunar New Year, which begins on January 21.
Wu said the third wave of cases will continue from late February to mid-March as people returned to work after the holidays.
In the eastern province of Zhejiang, home to many high-tech and industrial companies, the first wave is expected to peak around mid-January, although it could be earlier, health officials said at a news briefing Sunday.
“This period coincides with the Lunar New Year, and the population movement will accelerate the spread of the epidemic,” said Chen Zhong, deputy director of the provincial epidemic control team.
A US-based think tank said this week that the country could see an explosion in cases and that more than 1 million people in China could die from COVID in 2023.
Wu said severe cases had declined compared to previous years and the vaccination provided a certain degree of protection. He said the vulnerable should be protected, with booster vaccines recommended for the general public.
While China rolled out its first COVID vaccines in 2021, vaccination rates among people aged 60 and over have changed little since the summer, according to official figures.
Xinhua reported that only 66.4% of people over the age of 80 had completed a full course of vaccination.
Additional reporting by Si Liu, Dominic Button, Ryan Wu, Eduardo Baptista and Brenda Goh; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Philippa Fletcher
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