Chinese capital Beijing swings from anger over zero-Covid to coping with infections

People queue at a fever clinic to be tested for the Covid-19 in Beijing on Dec 9, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING – Beijing’s Covid-19 gloom deepened on Sunday, with many shops and other businesses closed, and an expert warned of many thousands of new coronavirus cases as anger over China’s previous Covid-19 policies gave way to worry about coping with infection.

China dropped most of its strict Covid-19 curbs last Wednesday after unprecedented protests against them in November, but cities that were already battling their most severe outbreaks, like Beijing, saw a sharp decrease in economic activity after rules such as regular testing were scrapped.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many businesses have been forced to close as infected workers quarantine at home, while many other people are deciding not to go out because of the higher risk of infection.

Dr Zhong Nanshan, a prominent Chinese epidemiologist, told state media that the Omicron strain of the virus prevalent in China was highly transmissible, and one infected person could spread it to as many as 18 others.

“We can see that hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of people are infected in several major cities,” Dr Zhong said.

With regular Covid-19 testing of Beijing residents scrapped and reserved only for groups such as health workers, official tallies for new cases have plunged.

The health authorities reported 1,661 new infections for Beijing on Saturday, down 42 per cent from 3,974 on Dec 6, a day before national policies were dramatically relaxed.

But evidence suggests there are many more cases in the city of nearly 22 million people, where everyone seems to know someone who has caught Covid-19.

“In my company, the number of people who are Covid-19-negative is close to zero,” said one woman who works for a tourism and events company in Beijing, who wanted to be known only as Nancy.

“We realise this can’t be avoided – everyone will just have to work from home,” she said.

Sunday is a normal business day for shops in Beijing and it is usually bustling, particularly in spots like the historic Shichahai neighbourhood packed with boutiques and cafes.

But few people were out and about on Sunday and malls in Chaoyang, Beijing’s most populous district, were practically deserted, with many salons, restaurants and retailers shut.

Long lines sprung up outside pharmacies in Beijing on Sunday as residents rushed to stockpile cold and fever medicine and antigen test kits.

Some said they were ordering drugs from pharmacies in nearby cities.

“I’ve asked my family in Shijiazhuang to courier fever medicine because nearby pharmacies don’t have stocks,” said Ms Julie Jiang, a Beijing resident.

Economists widely expect China’s road to economic health to be uneven, as shocks such as labour crunches due to workers calling in sick delay a full-fledged recovery for some time yet.

“The transition out of zero-Covid will eventually allow consumer spending patterns to return to normal, but a higher risk of infection will keep in-person spending depressed for months after reopening,” Mr Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics, said in a note.

China’s economy may grow 1.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2023 from a year earlier, and 4.9 per cent in the second, according to Capital Economics.

Epidemiologist Dr Zhong also said it would be some months before a return to normal.

“My opinion is in the first half of next year, after March,” he said.

While China has removed most of its domestic Covid-19 curbs, its international borders are still largely closed to foreigners, including tourists.

Inbound travellers are subjected to five days of quarantine at centralised government facilities and three additional days of self-monitoring at home.

But there are even hints that that rule could change.

Staff at the main international airport in Chengdu city, asked if quarantine rules were being eased, said that as at Saturday, whether one needed to do the three days of home quarantine would depend on a person’s neighbourhood authorities. REUTERS, AFP

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