Mask-wearing Beijing and Shanghai commuters crowded subway trains on Monday as China’s two biggest cities edged closer to living with COVID-19 even as frontline medical workers scrambled to cope with millions of new infections.
After three years of harsh anti-coronavirus curbs, President Xi Jinping scrapped China’s zero-COVID policy of lockdowns and relentless testing on Dec. 7 in the face of public protests and a widening outbreak.
“Our country’s new coronavirus epidemic prevention and control is facing new situations and new tasks,” the official Xinhua news agency cited Xi as saying on Monday in remarks on public health, marking one of his first references to China’s recent policy shift.
The virus is now spreading largely unchecked across the country of 1.4 billion people, with doubts mounting among health experts and residents about Beijing’s statistics, which show no new COVID deaths reported for the six days through Sunday.
Doctors say hospitals are overwhelmed with five- to six-times more patients than usual, mostly elderly.
All levels of government must further intensify their efforts to ensure demand for medical treatment and supplies is being met, Premier Li Keqiang was also quoted by Xinhua in its report as saying.
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“I am prepared to live with the pandemic,” said 25-year-old Shanghai resident Lin Zixin. “Lockdowns are not a long-term solution.”
This year, in an effort to prevent infections from spiraling out of control across the country, the 25 million people in Shanghai – China’s commercial hub endured two months of bitter isolation under lockdown that lasted until June 1.
Shanghai’s lively streets on Monday contrasted sharply with the atmosphere in April and May when hardly anyone went outside.
An annual Christmas market held at the Bund, a commercial district in Shanghai, was popular with city residents over the weekend. Crowds thronged the winter festive season at Shanghai Disneyland and Beijing’s Universal Studios on Sunday, queuing up for rides in Christmas-themed outfits.
The number of trips to scenic spots in the southern city of Guangzhou this weekend increased by 132% from last weekend, local newspaper The 21st Century Business Herald reported.
“Now basically everyone has returned to a normal routine,” said a 29-year-old Beijing resident surnamed Han.
China is the last major country to move toward treating COVID as endemic, lifting lockdowns and nearly all other restrictions on daily life. Its containment measures had slowed the $17 trillion economy to its lowest growth rate in nearly half a century, disrupting global supply chains and trade.
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The world’s second-largest economy is expected to suffer further in the short term, as the COVID wave spreads toward manufacturing areas and workforces fall ill, before bouncing back next year, analysts say.
Tesla suspended production at its Shanghai factory on Saturday, advancing a plan to pause most work at the plant in the last week of December. The company gave no reason.
The world’s most populous country has narrowed its definition for classifying deaths as COVID-related, counting only those involving COVID-caused pneumonia or respiratory failure, raising eyebrows among world health experts.
The country’s healthcare system has been under enormous strain, with staff being asked to work while sick and retired medical workers in rural communities being rehired to help, according to state media.
“The hospital is just overwhelmed from top to bottom,” said doctor Howard Bernstein at the privately owned Beijing United Family Hospital.
The government of Zhejiang, a big industrial province near Shanghai with a population of 65.4 million, said on Sunday it was battling about a million new daily COVID-19 infections, a number expected to double in the days ahead.
Health authorities in the southeastern Jiangxi province have said infections would hit an apex in early January, adding that there could be other peaks as people travel next month for Lunar New Year celebrations, state media reported.
They warned that the wave of infections would last three months and that about 80% of the province’s 45 million residents could come down with the virus.
The city of Qingdao, in the eastern province of Shandong, has estimated that up to 530,000 residents were being infected each day.
Cities across China have been racing to add intensive-care units and fever clinics, facilities designed to prevent the wider spread of contagious disease in hospitals.
The Beijing municipal government has said the number of fever clinics in the capital had risen from 94 to almost 1,300, state media said. Shanghai has 2,600 such clinics and has transferred doctors from less-strained medical departments to help out.
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Worries linger about the ability of less-affluent cities in China to cope with a surge in severe infections, especially as hundreds of millions of rural migrant workers are expected to return to their families for Lunar New Year.
“I am worried the flow of people will be huge … (and) the epidemic will break out again,” said Lin, the Shanghai resident.
(Reporting by the Beijing and Shanghai bureaus; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Muralikumar Anantharaman and Mark Heinrich)