Editor’s note: A version of this story appears in CNN’s Now in China newsletter, updated 3 times a week, and explores what you need to know about China’s rise and its impact on the world. Sign up here.
China is bracing for an unprecedented wave of Covid-19 cases as it rolls back much of its repressive zero-Covid policy, with a leading expert warning that the Omicron variant is “spreading rapidly” and signs of an outbreak rattling the nation’s capital .
The changes continued on Monday as authorities announced plans to retire the “mobile trip card” health-tracking feature the next day.
The system, which is separate from the health code scanning system still required in a few places in China, uses people’s mobile phone data to track their travel history for the past 14 days in an attempt to identify those who have been to a certain place. A city designated by the authorities as a “high risk” area.
For many Chinese, this has been a bone of contention, including concerns about data collection and the use of data by local governments to bar entry to those who have been to a city in a “high-risk area,” even if they have not traveled to that city. area.
But as the decommissioning of parts of zero-coronavirus infrastructure accelerates, questions have been raised about how the country’s health system will respond to a large-scale outbreak.
Over the weekend, some businesses in Beijing were closed and city 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 stations.
The China Youth Daily, a media outlet, on Friday documented the hours-long queue at a clinic in central Beijing, citing unnamed experts who urged residents not to go to the hospital unless necessary.
Health workers in the capital are also grappling with a surge in emergency calls, including many coronavirus-positive residents with mild or no symptoms. On Saturday, a hospital official urged residents in such situations not to call the city’s 911-like emergency services, which provide free services to the seriously ill.
Chen Zhi, chief physician at the Beijing Emergency Center, said that the number of emergency calls per day had surged from the usual 5,000 to more than 30,000 in recent days, according to state media.
Zhong Nanshan, a top Covid-19 expert, said in an interview published by state media on Saturday that Covid was “spreading rapidly” driven by a highly transmissible Omicron variant in China.
“No matter how strong the prevention and control efforts are, it is difficult to completely cut off the chain of transmission,” Xinhua quoted Zhong, who has been a key public voice since the early days of the pandemic in 2020, as saying.
The rapid rollback of testing across the country and the switch to at-home antigen tests by many people has also made it difficult to measure the extent of the spread, with official figures now rendered meaningless.
Authorities recorded 8,626 Covid-19 cases in China on Sunday, down from 10,597 the day before and a daily high of more than 40,000 late last month. CNN reports from Beijing suggest that the number of cases in the Chinese capital may be much higher than recorded.
A notice on the upper floor of a Beijing resident is more illustrative. It reads: “Because of the serious epidemic situation in recent days, there is a serious shortage of employees who can come to work, and the normal operation of the apartment has come to a standstill.” It has been greatly affected and challenged. . ”
The country is just days away from a major easing of long-imposed Covid-free measures, a dizzying change for many Chinese living under tight government controls and fueling long-running concerns about Covid-19. 19 Deadly sayings.
On Wednesday, top health officials rolled back the mass testing, centralized quarantines and health code tracking rules that had relied on controlling the spread of the virus. Some aspects of these measures, such as the use of health codes at designated locations and centralized isolation of severe cases and home isolation of cases, remain in place.
Outside experts have warned that China may not be prepared for an expected surge in cases after it unexpectedly lifted the measures following nationwide protests against the policy, rising case numbers and mounting economic costs.
While Omicron may cause relatively mild disease compared to earlier variants, even a small number of severe cases could have a major impact on the health system of the 1.4 billion country.
Zhong said in an interview with state media that the government’s top priority now should be to step up injections, especially for the elderly and other high-risk groups, especially with the Lunar New Year coming up next month — a time when urban residents visiting elderly relatives and Back to my hometown in the countryside.
Health authorities on Sunday ordered to boost medical capacity in rural areas by the end of the month.
Measures to be taken include increasing ICU wards and beds, strengthening intensive care medical staff and setting up more fever clinics, China’s National Health Commission said in a statement.
Meanwhile, experts warn that a lack of experience dealing with the virus — and a recent shift in tone in state media that has focused on its dangers and overseas fallout for years — could push people without urgent needs to seek medical attention , further overriding all systems.
Li Xiaobo, a graduate student in Beijing who tested positive on Friday, said he was not afraid of the virus, but his mother, who lives in the countryside, worried about him all night. “She thought the virus was a very, very scary thing,” Lee said.
“I think most people in rural China may have some misunderstandings about the virus, which may come from the country’s over-hyping of the virus in the past two years. This is one of the reasons people are so afraid,” he said, adding that he Still support the government’s cautious approach to Covid-19 during the pandemic.
Evidently, efforts are being made to allay public concerns about Covid-19 and its knock-on effects, such as panic buying of drugs.
China’s market regulator 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 compared with the same period in October. Sales of some drugs jumped 18-fold that week.
One hashtag trending over the weekend on Weibo, China’s tightly controlled social media platform, was state media interviews with doctors in Beijing who said people who had tested positive for Covid-19 but had no or mild symptoms did not need medication to recover.
“Asymptomatic infections do not need medication at all. It is enough to rest at home and maintain a good mood and physical condition,” Li Tongzeng, chief physician of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Beijing You’an Hospital, said in an interview, which was published since Friday. Tags were associated more than 370 million times.