February 4, 2023

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China grapples with COVID surge by Reuters

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©Reuters. Women wearing face masks and face shields speak on a street amid ongoing outbreaks of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Shanghai, China, 12 December 2022. REUTERS/Aly Song 2/4

By Eduardo Baptista and Josh Ye

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 dismantle strict measures against the disease.

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 after unprecedented protests against its suffocating curbs.

It has halted testing ahead of many activities, restrained itself in quarantine and on Monday is preparing to shut down a mobile app used to track 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 distributors, have been infected and have been 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, the capital, about 80 people huddled outside a fever clinic in the upscale Chaoyang district in the cold as ambulances drove by.

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

The number of patients waiting to be admitted to emergency and fever clinics is growing, a doctor working in a respiratory unit at a Beijing hospital was quoted as saying by the state-backed Global Times newspaper on Sunday.

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 Chinese health expectations have warned of an impending 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.

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.