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China is bracing for an unprecedented wave of Covid-19 cases as it dismantles much of its repressive zero-Covid policy, with a leading expert warning that omicron variants are “spreading rapidly” and signs of an outbreak are hitting the country’s capital shake the country.
The changes continued on Monday, when authorities announced a planned deactivation of the “mobile itinerary map’s” health-tracking feature for the following day.
The system, which is separate from the health code scanning system still required in a smaller number of places in China, had used people’s cell phone data to track their travel history over the past 14 days and try to identify those , who were in a city with zone designated as “risk area” by the authorities.
This has been a point of contention for many Chinese, in part due to concerns about data collection and its use by local governments to ban those who have visited a city with a “high-risk zone” from entering, even if they didn’t go to those areas within this city.
But as the scrapping of bits of zero-Covid infrastructure progresses, how will the country’s healthcare system deal with a mass outbreak?
Throughout the weekend, some businesses in Beijing were closed and the city’s streets were largely deserted as residents either fell ill or feared contracting the virus. The largest public crowds were seen outside pharmacies and Covid-19 testing stands.
Media outlet China Youth Daily on Friday documented hours-long queues outside a clinic in central Beijing, citing unnamed experts urging residents to visit hospitals only when necessary.
Health workers in the capital have also grappled with a surge in calls to emergency services, including from many Covid-positive residents with mild or no symptoms. A hospital official on Saturday appealed to residents not to call the city’s 911-like emergency services in such cases to allocate and commit resources to the critically ill.
The daily number of emergency calls has increased from its usual 5,000 to more than 30,000 in the past few days, said Chen Zhi, chief physician at the Beijing Emergency Center, according to official media.
Covid “spread rapidly,” fueled by highly transmissible Omicron variants in China, a top Covid-19 expert, Zhong Nanshan, said in an interview released by state media on Saturday.
“No matter how strong the prevention and control, it will be difficult to completely break the chain of transmission,” Zhong, who has been a key public voice since the early days of the 2020 pandemic, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
The rapid nationwide rollback of testing and the switch of many people to using home antigen testing has also made it difficult to estimate the extent of the spread, as official data now seems meaningless.
Authorities recorded 8,626 Covid-19 cases across China on Sunday, down from the previous day’s figure of 10,597 and the peak of more than 40,000 daily cases late last month. CNN reports from Beijing suggest the number of cases in the Chinese capital could be much higher than recorded.
A note seen on a residential building in Beijing points to the larger situation and reads: “Due to the severe epidemic situation in recent days, the number of employees who can come to work is seriously insufficient, and the normal one Operation of the apartment has been heavily impacted and challenged.”
The country is just days away from major easing of its long-standing zero-Covid measures, which represented a dizzying shift for many Chinese living under the government’s tight controls and fueled a longstanding narrative of the lethality of Covid-19 .
Last Wednesday, senior health officials rolled out the rules of mass testing, centralized quarantine and health codes they had relied on to control the spread of the virus. Some aspects of these measures, such as the use of health rules in designated locations and central quarantine of severe cases, as well as isolating cases at home, remain in place.
Outside experts have warned that China may not be prepared for the expected spate of cases after the surprise move to lift its measures following nationwide anti-policy protests, rising case numbers and rising economic costs.
While Omicron can cause relatively milder disease compared to previous variants, even a small number of severe cases could have a significant impact on the healthcare system in a country of 1.4 billion people.
Zhong, in the interview with state media, said the government’s top priority now should be booster vaccinations, especially for the elderly and other most vulnerable people, especially in light of next month’s Chinese Lunar New Year – a peak travel season when city dwellers visit elderly relatives and Return to rural hometowns.
Health authorities on Sunday ordered improvements in medical capacity in rural areas by the end of the month.
Measures to be taken include increasing ICU wards and beds, bolstering critical care medical staff and setting up more clinics for fever, China’s National Health Commission said in a statement.
Meanwhile, experts have warned that a lack of experience with the virus – and years of state media coverage focusing on its dangers and implications abroad before the tone has recently changed – is leaving those not in critical need , could lead to seeking medical care which could further be overwhelming systems.
Bob Li, a graduate student in Beijing who tested positive for the virus on Friday, said he is not afraid of the virus but his mother, who lives in the countryside, stayed up all night worrying about him. “She finds the virus very, very scary,” Li said.
“I think most people in rural China may have some misconceptions about the virus, which may be due to the state’s over-hype about this virus over the past two years. It’s one of the reasons people are so scared,” he said, adding that he continued to support the government’s careful handling of Covid-19 during the pandemic.
There are clear efforts to contain public concerns about Covid-19 – and its fallout, such as panic buying of medicines.
China’s market watchdog said on Friday there was a “temporary shortage” of some “hot-selling” drugs and vowed to crack down on price gouging, while major online retailer JD.com said last week it was taking steps to ensure stable supplies Post-sale safeguards for certain drugs rose 18-fold this week from the same period in October.
A hashtag that surfaced on China’s heavily moderated social media platform Weibo over the weekend included a state media interview with a Beijing doctor, which said people who tested positive for Covid-19 had no or only mild symptoms didn’t have to take any medication to recover.
“People with asymptomatic flexions don’t need any medication at all. It is enough to rest at home, keep a good mood and physical condition,” said Li Tongzeng, chief infectious disease doctor at Beijing You An Hospital, in an interview linked to a hashtag that has racked up more than 370 million as of Friday times was called.