Queues form at fever clinics as China grapples with COVID surge

  • Lines in front of fever clinics in Beijing, Wuhan
  • Top virus expert says peak could come in a month
  • Stocks and yuan slump on concerns over rising cases
  • China is moving to facilitate domestic travel

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) – People queued outside fever clinics in China’s hospitals for COVID-19 checks on Monday, a new sign of the rapid spread of symptoms after authorities began to ease strict restrictions on movement.

Three years into the pandemic, China is trying to join a world that has largely opened up to life with COVID and made a sea change in policy last Wednesday following unprecedented protests.

It has stopped testing ahead of many activities, curbed quarantines and prepared to shut down a mobile app that tracks the travel histories of a population of 1.4 billion people.

Authorities continue to push for mask wearing and vaccinations, especially for the elderly.

But with China’s little exposure to a disease that has so far been largely contained, analysts say China is ill-prepared for a wave of infections that could strain its fragile healthcare system and bring businesses to a halt.

Lily Li, who works at a toy company in Guangzhou’s southern manufacturing hub, said several employees, as well as employees from suppliers and retailers, have been infected and are isolating at home.

“Basically everyone is now rushing to buy rapid antigen test kits at the same time, but also somewhat giving up hope that COVID can be contained,” she said.

“We accepted that we’re going to have to get COVID at some point anyway.”

In Beijing, about 80 people huddled in the cold outside a fever clinic in the upscale Chaoyang district as ambulances drove by.

A Beijing government official said Monday night that the number of visits to such clinics rose to 22,000 a day, up 16 times from the previous week.

Reuters saw similar queues outside clinics in downtown Wuhan, where COVID-19 first emerged three years ago. Continue reading

Local cases have been falling in recent weeks since a peak of 40,052 in late November, official figures show. Sunday’s number of 8,626 was down from 10,597 new cases the previous day.

But the numbers reflect the drop in testing requirements, analysts say, while health experts have warned of an imminent surge.

In an op-ed Monday in the state-backed Shanghai Securities News, Zhang Wenhong, head of a team of experts at the trade hub, said the current outbreak could peak in a month, although an end to the pandemic could take three to six months a way.

In a WeChat post, Zhang’s team said that despite the surge, the current strain of Omicron has not caused any long-term damage and people should be optimistic.

“We are about to exit the tunnel; Air, sunshine, free travel, everything is waiting for us,” the post said.

SHARES, YUAN SAG

China’s stock markets broadly declined and the yuan slipped from a nearly three-month high in the previous session as investors feared rising infections could disrupt consumption and manufacturing.

But for the same reason, demand for shares in Chinese drugmakers and providers of masks, antigen tests and funeral services rose.

“Please protect yourself,” the administration of a condominium in the capital’s Dongcheng district on Sunday warned residents, saying almost all employees had been infected.

“Try not to go out as much as you can…” the messaging app WeChat said. “Be the first to take responsibility for your own health, let’s do this together.”

Such news seems to have gotten through to some, who say they are reluctant to visit crowded places or dine out in restaurants.

As a result, few analysts expect a quick and broad recovery in spending in the world’s second largest economy, as uncertainty tempered cheering over abrupt easing among consumers and businesses.

However, China is pushing to facilitate nationwide travel, though overseas travel may still take a while.

A state-mandated mobile app that identifies travelers in COVID-hit areas will be shut down at midnight Monday, according to a notice on its official WeChat account.

The number of available domestic flights across China surpassed 7,400, nearly doubling a week ago, flight tracker app VariFlight showed.

New home sales in 16 cities picked up last week, partly due to the easing of curbs as people venture out to tour homes, the China Index Academy said.

Reporting by Eduardo Baptista, Ryan Woo, Bernard Orr, Sophie Yu in Beijing, Brenda Goh in Shanghai, Martin Quin Pollard in Wuhan, and Josh Ye and Greg Torode in Hong Kong; writing by John Geddie; Edited by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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