BEIJING (AP) — A surge of COVID-19 cases was reported Friday at schools and businesses in areas of China after the ruling Communist Party relaxed antivirus rules while trying to reverse a deepening economic recession.
While official data showed a drop in new cases, it no longer covers much of the population after the government scrapped mandatory testing for many people on Wednesday. That was part of dramatic changes meant to gradually emerge from “Zero COVID” restrictions that have confined millions of people to their homes and sparked protests and demands for the resignation of President Xi Jinping.
“Very few people come because there are a lot of cases,” said Gang Xueping, a waitress at a Beijing restaurant. “The country has just opened up. The first one or two months are definitely going to be serious. Nobody is used to this yet.
In other cities, social media users said that co-workers or classmates were sick and that some businesses had closed due to lack of staff. It was not clear from those accounts, many of which could not be independently confirmed, how far above the official figure the total case numbers might be.
“I am really speechless. Half of the company’s people are sick, but they still don’t allow us to stay at home,” said a post signed by Tunnel Mouth on the popular Sina Weibo platform. The user did not give his name and did not respond to questions sent through the account, which said the user was in Beijing.
The reports echo the experience of the United States, Europe and other countries that have battled outbreaks while trying to restore business activity. But they are a jarring change for China, where “zero COVID,” which aims to isolate every case, has disrupted daily life and depressed economic activity but kept infection rates low.
Xi’s government began to relax controls on November 1. 11 after promising to reduce your cost and disruption. Imports fell 10.9% from a year earlier in November in a sign of weak demand. Car sales fell 26.5% in October.
“Relaxing COVID controls will lead to further outbreaks,” Eurasia Group’s Neil Thomas and Laura Gloudeman said in a report. “But it is unlikely that Beijing will return to the prolonged general lockdowns that collapsed the economy earlier this year.”
The changes suggest the ruling party is softening its goal of preventing transmission of the virus, the basis of “zero COVID”, but officials say the strategy remains in place.
The restrictions probably need to stay in place until at least mid-2023, say economists and public health experts. They say millions of older people need to be vaccinated, which will take months, and hospitals need to be strengthened to cope with a surge in cases. The authorities announced a vaccination campaign last week.
On Friday, the government reported 16,797 new cases, including 13,160 without symptoms. That was about a fifth down from the previous day and less than half from last week’s daily peak above 40,000.
More changes announced Wednesday allowing people with mild cases of COVID-19 to isolate at home instead of going to a quarantine center that some said was overcrowded and unsanitary. That addressed a huge irritant for the public.
The requirement for subway riders, supermarket shoppers and others to show negative virus tests has also been removed, though they are still needed for schools and hospitals.
A post signed Where Dreams Begin Under the Starlight by a user in Dazhou, a city in southwestern Sichuan province, said all but five students in a class of 46 at a public school were infected.
“It’s really amazing that the school insists that students go to school,” the user wrote. The user, contacted through the account, declined to give a name or other details.
Requiring hundreds of millions of people to be tested once a day in some areas for the past two years has helped the government detect infections without symptoms. Ending that approach reduces the cost of monitoring employees and customers in offices, stores and other businesses. But it increases the risk that they could spread the virus.
This week’s changes follow protests that broke out on November 1. 25 in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities against the human cost of “zero COVID”.
It is not clear if any of the changes were a response to the protests, which died down after a security crackdown.
The ruling party Politburo declared stabilizing weak economic growth its priority on Wednesday, though leaders have said local officials are still expected to protect the public.
“The new turn towards growth and the exit from zero COVID are clear from the top level,” Larry Hu and Yuxiao Zhang of Macquarie Group, an Australian bank, said in a report. However, they warned, “uncertainties remain high,” including “how disruptive the zero-COVID exit could be.”
Party leaders stopped talking about the official 5.5% annual growth target after the economy contracted 2.6% from the previous quarter in the three months ending in June. That was after Shanghai and other industrial hubs shut down for up to two months to combat outbreaks.
Private sector economists have cut forecasts for annual growth to below 3%, which would be less than half last year’s 8.1% and one of the weakest in decades.
Posts on social media suggested that some cities might have outbreaks that were not reflected in the official figures.
Posts dated Thursday by 18 people who said they were in Baoding, a city of 11 million southwest of Beijing, reported they tested positive using home kits or had a fever, sore throat and headaches. Meanwhile, the Baoding city government reported no new cases since Tuesday.
Pharmacies were robbed by customers buying medicines to treat sore throats and headaches after rules requiring pharmacists to report such purchases were removed, raising fears a customer could be forced into a facility of quarantine.
Also on Friday, the market regulator announced that the prices of some medicines, including Lianhua Qingwen, a traditional flu treatment, increased by as much as 500% over the past month. He said that sellers could be punished for raising prices.
Lines formed outside hospitals, though it was unclear how many people wanted treatment for COVID-19 symptoms.
People waited four to five hours to enter the fever clinic at Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing, according to a woman who answered the phone there and gave only her last name, Sun. She said a virus test was not required, but patients had to show a smartphone “health code” app that tracks their vaccine status and whether they’ve been in areas considered high-risk for infection.
Hong Kong, which pursues its own anti-virus strategy, has faced a similar rise in cases as the southern Chinese city tries to revive its struggling economy by relaxing controls on travel and opening hours of restaurants and pubs. .
Hong Kong reported 75,000 new cases over the past week, up 25% from the previous week. But those don’t include an unknown number of people who stay home with COVID-19 symptoms and never report it to the government.
AP news assistant Caroline Chen in Guangzhou, China, researcher Yu Bing in Beijing, and AP writers Kanis Leung in Hong Kong and Dake Kang in Beijing contributed to this report.
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