China prepares for huge COVID-19 surge amid opening

While the end of lockdowns has brought relief for a weary public given the economic and social tolls, the reality of living with the virus has now brought new anxieties for many in China

December 09, 2022 08:55 pm | Updated 08:55 pm IST - Beijing

A resident carries away medicine bought at a pharmacy in Beijing, on December 9, 2022. China began implementing a more relaxed version of its strict “zero COVID” policy amid steps to restore normal life, but also trepidation over a possible broader outbreak once controls are eased.

A resident carries away medicine bought at a pharmacy in Beijing, on December 9, 2022. China began implementing a more relaxed version of its strict “zero COVID” policy amid steps to restore normal life, but also trepidation over a possible broader outbreak once controls are eased. | Photo Credit: AP

China is already bracing itself for a huge surge of COVID-19 cases, two days after announcing a major easing of restrictions and a shift away from the zero-COVID policy.

The Chinese capital wore a deserted look on the third day of opening, with many choosing to stay home despite the easing measures, which have done away with requiring PCR tests to enter many venues and for the first time allow positive cases to isolate at home, instead of being transferred to government-run quarantine centres.

While the end of lockdowns has brought relief for a weary public given the economic and social tolls, the reality of living with the virus has now brought new anxieties for many in China, who are, for the first time in three years, facing the prospect of contracting an illness that they had been told to fear.

State media has sought to assuage those fears with a stark shift in messaging, now emphasising that the majority of Omicron cases reported were mild. However, anecdotal evidence of a COVID surge in Beijing—official numbers are declining because testing has slowed—has kept most residents indoors.

On Friday, the government issued new guidelines for “tiered medical services” for those aged 65 and above, calling on local governments to register all in this age group, track their vaccination status, and monitor their health condition by classifying cases according to low, medium and high risk.

China’s large number of unvaccinated elderly is particularly vulnerable as cases surge. Only 40% of the 30 million people above 80 have received three shots, while a little over two-thirds of the 250 million above 60 has done so, as of November.

Earlier this week, a top Chinese health official warned that as much as 60% of the population—or 840 million people—may be infected in China’s first wave after opening. Feng Zijian, a government advisor and former deputy head of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a seminar at Beijing’s Tsinghua University that “about 80-90%” of the population may eventually be infected.

Reopening from zero-COVID, economists have cautioned, may not immediately yield the economic boom that the government is hoping for, with a few months of uncertainty likely ahead for the economy as the workforce deals with China’s biggest COVID surge so far and the wider population slowly comes to terms with a new normal after three years of zero-COVID.

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