©Reuters. A medical worker gives instructions to a resident of a mobile fever clinic converted from a bus during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Huaian, east China’s Jiangsu province, 25 December 2022. cnsphoto via REUTERS 2/3
By Bernard Orr and Casey Hall
BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Mask-wearing commuters from Beijing and Shanghai packed subways on Monday, with China’s two biggest cities getting closer to life with COVID-19 as millions across the country contracted the virus.
After years of reckless containment of the coronavirus, President Xi Jinping has abandoned the country’s zero-COVID policy amid protests and a widening outbreak.
But after the initial shock of the policy reversal and a few weeks during which people in Beijing and Shanghai stayed home to either deal with the disease or avoid it, there are signs that life is on the way, to get closer to normality.
Subways in Beijing and Shanghai were overcrowded, while some main thoroughfares in the two cities were clogged with slow-moving cars on Monday as residents commuted to work.
An annual Christmas market in the Bund, a commercial area in Shanghai, was also crowded over the weekend. Crowds thronged at Shanghai Disneyland and Beijing’s Universal Studios on Sunday during the festive winter season, queuing for rides dressed in Christmas outfits.
The number of trips to scenic spots in the southern city of Guangzhou this weekend rose 132% from last weekend, local newspaper The 21st Century Business Herald reported.
China is the latest major country to move to treating COVID as endemic. 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.
The economy is expected to suffer further in the short-term as the COVID wave spreads to manufacturing sectors and workforces become ill, before recovering next year, analysts say.
Tesla (NASDAQ:) halted production at its Shanghai plant on Saturday and presented a plan to halt most work at the plant during the last week of December. The company did not give a reason.
Despite a record wave of cases nationwide, China reported no mainland COVID deaths in the six days to Sunday, the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention said on Sunday, even as crematoria faced a surge in demand.
China has narrowed its definition for classifying deaths as COVID-related, only counting those involving COVID-related pneumonia or respiratory failure, raising eyebrows among world health experts.
According to state media, the country’s healthcare system is under a huge strain as staff are asked to work while sick and retired medical workers in rural communities are reinstated to help.
The provincial government of Zhejiang, a major industrial province near Shanghai with a population of 65.4 million, said Sunday it is battling about a million new COVID-19 infections every day, a number expected to double in the coming days .
Health officials in the southeastern province of Jiangxi said infections would peak in early January, adding that there could be further peaks as people travel for the Lunar New Year celebrations next month, state media reported.
They warned that the wave of infections would last three months and that around 80 percent of the province’s 45 million inhabitants could become infected.
The city of Qingdao in eastern Shandong province estimates that up to 530,000 residents become infected every day.
Cities across China are scrambling to add intensive care units and fever clinics, facilities designed to prevent the further spread of contagious diseases in hospitals.
The Beijing municipal government said the number of fever clinics in the city has increased to nearly 1,300 from 94, state media said. Shanghai has 2,600 such clinics and has transferred doctors from less-burdened medical departments to help.
Concerns remain 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 the Lunar New Year.