China’s Zero Covid Easing: Cases skyrocket in Beijing, leaving empty streets and disrupted daily life

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Empty streets, deserted malls and residents keeping their distance are the new normal in Beijing – but not because the city, like many Chinese before it, is under a “zero Covid” lockdown.

This time it’s because Beijing has been hit by a significant and spreading outbreak — a first for the Chinese capital since the pandemic began, a week after leaders eased the country’s restrictive Covid policies.

The impact of the outbreak in the city was visible Tuesday in the upscale shopping district of Sanlitun. There, the normally busy shops and restaurants were without customers, in some cases functioning with emergency crews or only offering take-away food.

Similar scenes are playing out across Beijing as offices, shops and shared apartments report being understaffed or changing work arrangements if employees contract the virus. Others are staying at home to avoid getting infected.

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Epidemic control workers wear PPE to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while standing guard outside a cordoned-off community in Beijing, China, November 29, 2022.

Expert: China has failed to prepare residents for the end of the zero-Covid policy

A community worker told CNN that 21 of the 24 employees at her Beijing Neighborhood Committee office, which is tasked with coordinating housing issues and activities, have fallen ill in recent days.

“Since our superiors are mostly infected, we don’t get much work,” said the employee Sylvia Sun. “(The usual) events, lectures, performances, parent-child activities are definitely not taking place.”

Beijing, which was already experiencing a small outbreak before the new rules, is now on the frontline of a new reality for China: Since the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, Chinese cities have not managed an outbreak without strong control measures in place.

But for a place that diligently followed every case until earlier this month, there is now no firm data on the extent of the spread of the virus. China’s new Covid rules have significantly scaled back the testing requirements that once dominated daily life, and residents have instead shifted to using at-home antigen testing where available, making official figures unreliable.

Customers queue in front of a pharmacy in Beijing, China on Tuesday, December 13, 2022.

On Wednesday, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) gave up trying to keep track of all new Covid cases and announced it would no longer include asymptomatic infections in its daily count. It had previously reported these cases, albeit in a different category than “confirmed” or symptomatic.

“It is impossible to accurately record the actual number of asymptomatic infections,” the NHC said in a statement, citing a reduced level of official testing.

Authorities reported 2,249 symptomatic Covid cases across the country as of Wednesday morning for the previous day, 20% of which were detected in the capital. It is also believed that these numbers are affected by reduced testing. CNN reports from Beijing suggest the total number of cases in the Chinese capital could be many times higher than recorded.

In a Twitter post, Beijing-based lawyer and former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China James Zimmerman said about 90% of the staff at his office have contracted Covid, up from about half a few days ago.

“Our ‘work at home’ policy is now ‘work at home if you’re well enough’. This thing came in like a runaway freight train,” he wrote on Wednesday.

Experts have said the relatively small number of previously infected Covid-19 patients in China and the lower effectiveness of its widely used inactivated virus vaccines against omicron infections – compared to previous strains and mRNA vaccines – could allow the virus to spread quickly.

“The current strains will spread faster in China than in other parts of the world because those other parts of the world have some immunity to infection from previous waves of previous omicron strains,” said Ben, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong Bonnet.

A closed Covid testing stand in Beijing, China on Tuesday 13th December.

The scale of serious illness or death in Covid-19 outbreaks usually takes time to become clear, but there are signs of an impact on the health system – authorities in Beijing are urging patients who are not seriously ill not to seek emergency aid in avail services.

The city’s major hospitals recorded 19,000 patients with flu symptoms from Dec. 5-11 — more than six times the previous week, a health official said Monday.

The number of patients visiting fever clinics was 16 times higher on Sunday than a week earlier. In China, where there is no strong primary care system, visiting the hospital for minor illnesses is common.

So far, however, there have been only 50 serious and critical cases in hospitals, most of which have health problems, Sun Chunlan, China’s top official in charge of managing Covid, said during an inspection of Beijing’s response to the epidemic on Tuesday.

“Currently, the number of newly infected people in Beijing is rising rapidly, but most of them are asymptomatic and mild cases,” said Sun, who also called for the establishment of more fever clinics and pledged supplies of medicines — which have been witnessed by a surge in spending in recent days hit – has been increased.

Prominent Shanghai doctor Zhang Wenhong warned that hospitals should do everything they can to ensure health workers do not become infected as quickly as people in the communities they serve. Such a situation could lead to a shortage of medical staff and infections among patients, he said, according to local media reports.

Concerns about the scarcity and access to medicines and medical supplies have been felt in the public debate, including on social media. There, a Beijing reporter’s account of her time in a makeshift hospital treating Covid-19 sparked a social media firestorm, with a related hashtag garnering more than 93 million views on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo since Monday.

Social media users questioned why the reporter, who showed off her twin room and access to fever medication in a video interview posted by her employer Beijing Radio and Television Station on Sunday, was receiving such treatment while others had to fight.

“Brilliant! A young reporter gets a spot in a makeshift hospital and takes liquid ibuprofen for children, which is hard for parents to find in Beijing,” read one sarcastic comment, garnering thousands of likes.

Another popular response complained that “normal people” are staying home with children and the elderly with high fevers.

“Could you give me (her) bed when I call (the hospital)?” asked the Weibo user.

Amid fears of the virus, residents have rushed to buy canned peaches after rumors the vitamin C-laden snack could prevent or treat Covid. Chinese state media have since warned people that the preserved fruit is neither a Covid cure nor a replacement for medicines.

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