Beijing adds more Covid-19 cases as anxiety over China economy grows

A health worker gets a swab sample from a woman inside a residential area under lockdown in Beijing on May 26, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (BLOOMBERG) - Beijing's month-long Covid-19 outbreak continues to flare, with 29 new cases recorded for Thursday (May 26) amid rising anxiety from within China's government about the impact of its Covid Zero policy on the economy.

The Chinese capital has seen a consistent drumbeat of infections since the current outbreak started to gather pace towards the end of April.

New cases spiked to 99 on Sunday, a record for this flareup, even as officials impose a raft of restrictions, including work-from-home orders for most Beijing districts.

The ongoing outbreak in China's centre of political power comes as concerns about the world's second-largest economy mount.

Premier Li Keqiang warned cadres in a rare emergency meeting on Wednesday that growth risks slipping out of a reasonable range, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News.

Local officials throughout China were given a list of objectives to focus on this year, including better balancing the containment of Covid-19 with economic growth.

On the ground in the mega-city, anxiety over the social costs of wide-ranging curbs is also mounting.

The city’s health commission on Friday set up a task force to investigate an incident of a person who died due to delayed treatment, after claims from his family that an ambulance took too long to arrive due to Covid controls.

Shunyi district officials have suspended relevant staff at the medical emergency centre and vowed that treatment would not be delayed for anyone, they said.  

Anger over the incident is spreading on social media platforms, echoing similar episodes in Shanghai and Xi’an where Covid restrictions prevented timely medical care, resulting in deaths.

Local officials have faced growing unhappiness and pushback from residents over the harsh rules, posing a challenge to President Xi Jinping’s staunch deployment of the strategy nationwide.

In Shanghai, there were 264 new cases on Thursday, according to state broadcaster CCTV, all in quarantine facilities.

The city of 25 million is slowly emerging from an intensive, almost two-month lockdown that disrupted manufacturing and business, while keeping residents confined to their homes.

People are still being subjected to a range of curbs on their movement, as the authorities strive to prevent a return of cases in the community.

The financial hub started to exit the lockdown mid-May, after reporting three consecutive days of zero infections outside of government-mandated quarantine.

It is a target that Beijing is also chasing, with officials reluctant to impose a Shanghai-style lockdown on the capital.

China is struggling to balance its need to hit a growth target of about 5.5 per cent this year with its steadfast adherence to a Covid-19 approach that is becoming less tenable as the rest of the world opens up and more transmissible virus variants take hold.

The country's borders remain effectively closed, all cases and their close contacts are put into government isolation, and consistent - sometimes disruptive - mass testing remains a key part of the Covid-19 playbook.

The country is due to report figures on industrial sector profits on Friday, with recent data pointing to marked turmoil in the economy.

China has fallen to second-last in Bloomberg's Covid-19 Resilience Ranking of the best and worst places to be in the pandemic, as outbreaks trigger curbs on mobility and the functioning of business and everyday life.

Tianjin, a key port city close to Beijing, is also seeing a simmering outbreak. The city centre was locked down this week as cases flared. Tianjin reported 18 new infections for Wednesday, according to CCTV.

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