BAODING, China, Dec 11 (Reuters) – When Li tested positive for COVID-19 in Baoding, north China on Tuesday, he was preparing for a five-day quarantine at a makeshift local hospital as part of the country’s tight pandemic controls.
Instead, the next day, China abruptly eased policies that have made the world’s most populous country an outlier in a world largely learning to live with COVID.
Li, 30, who asked to be identified by his family name only, told Reuters he was allowed to relax at home in the industrial city near the capital Beijing.
But the sudden change of course caught him unprepared – left alone, he had no medicine at home to treat his fever.
“I couldn’t buy medicines back then, with long lines everywhere in front of pharmacies,” Li told Reuters.
Three years after the coronavirus emerged in central China, some citizens had recently launched rare public protests against a zero-COVID policy that had called for economically disruptive lockdowns and mandatory quarantines at state facilities.
But Beijing’s abrupt policy change on Wednesday, cheered by some, also sparked concern in a country with a relatively low vaccination rate, where people have been taught to fear the disease.
The easing of mandatory PCR testing for China’s 1.4 billion people has weakened health officials’ ability to quickly identify cases and gauge how infections are spreading and disrupting society and the economy.
Since curbs were eased, authorities have not predicted how many people could become seriously ill or die. In October, China forecast at least 100 deaths for every 100,000 infections.
LACK OF DRUGS
Baoding, home to 9.2 million people, quickly drew attention on China’s Twitter-like Weibo with posts from people living with COVID raising awareness of inadequate medical care as infections surged.
Some stocks have been replenished, Reuters noted during a visit, with cold medicine like ibuprofen available in many pharmacies. But popular traditional Chinese medicine Lianhua Qingwen, used for symptoms like fever and cough, and antigen testing kits have remained harder to find.
Baoding is not alone. Online pharmacies across China are running out of drugs and test kits, prompting the government to crack down on hoarding.
Officials have urged households to report severe symptoms using self-administered antigen kits. But these kits are still hard to come by, increasing the risk that those who are seriously ill will not get treatment right away.
“There will certainly be increasing numbers of infections in the coming weeks,” said Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at Hong Kong University, regardless of how many are recorded in the test numbers. Serious infections would also increase, he warned.
China has 138,100 critical care hospital beds, a health official said recently, little for China’s large population.
And just as more COVID patients are recovering at home, Baoding has been hit by a winter heating supply shortage, raising the risk of serious illness. The heat was insufficient due to the “unstable” coal supply caused by COVID, the state-run Baoding Daily reported, without giving details.
A Baoding resident named Wang, 20, said the temperature in her home was only 18 degrees Celsius (64 Fahrenheit). Two members of her family had COVID.
“We joked that Baoding residents don’t need heat since we can warm up with our own body temperature,” she said.
Health authorities recognize that older people are particularly vulnerable and need more vaccinations.
The risk of a serious illness for people over 65 is five times higher than for younger people, the risk for people over 75 seven times and for people over 85 nine times higher, while their risk of death is 90, 220 and 570 times higher, respectively said an official at the Chinese Center for Disease Control.
But the appeal to older people to be more protective appears to have been diluted by the simultaneous message that the Omicron variant is non-lethal.
Yang, 64, refrained from stocking up. “I’m not afraid” of COVID, said Yang, a farmer who is fully vaccinated and has no underlying diseases.
China has reported no deaths since the easing of COVID curbs, with around 5,200 deaths so far compared to more than 1 million in the United States.
But time will tell if a US-scale death toll that would mean 4 million deaths in China can be averted.
Reporting by Ella Cao and Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Darerca Siu in Hong Kong; Adaptation by William Mallard
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