Travelers from Beijing and Shanghai wore masks packed subways on Monday as China’s two largest cities adjust to living with COVID-19 and frontline medical workers struggle to cope with millions of new infections.
After three years of relentless coronavirus measures, President Xi Jinping on December 7 abandoned the country’s “zero COVID” strategy of lockdowns and strict testing in the face of protests and the escalating outbreak.
“The prevention and control of our country’s new coronavirus epidemic is facing new situations and new tasks,” Xi Jinping said Monday in public health remarks quoted by the official Xinhua news agency, one of his first references to China’s recent change in strategy.
The virus is spreading unchecked across the country of 1.4 billion people, with health experts and residents increasingly doubting Beijing’s statistics that no new COVID deaths have been recorded in the six days through Sunday.
Doctors say hospitals are overwhelmed with five to six times the usual number of patients, mostly elderly.
Premier Li Keqiang, also quoted by Xinhua in his article, said all levels of government should step up their efforts to ensure that demand for treatment and medical supplies is met.
“I am prepared to live with the pandemic,” said Lin Zixin, 25, of Shanghai. “Lockdowns are not a long-term solution.
This year, in an effort to keep infections from spiraling out of control across the country, China’s 25 million mall residents endured two months of bitter isolation under a strict lockdown that lasted until June 1.
Shanghai’s lively streets contrasted sharply with the atmosphere of April and May, when hardly anyone could be seen outside.
The Christmas market held annually in the Bund, a shopping area of Shanghai, was very popular with the city’s residents over the weekend. Crowds flocked to winter parties at Shanghai Disneyland and Beijing Universal Studios on Sunday, queuing to board attractions in holiday attire.
The number of trips to scenic spots in the southern city of Guangzhou this weekend increased 132% from the previous one, local newspaper The 21st Century Business Herald reported.
“Now, basically, everyone is back to normal routine,” said a 29-year-old Beijing resident surnamed Han. “The tense atmosphere has passed.”
China is the last major country to move towards treating COVID as endemic. His containment measures had slowed the $17 trillion economy to its lowest growth rate in nearly half a century, disrupting supply chains and global trade.
According to analysts, the world’s second-largest economy is expected to continue to suffer in the short term, as the COVID wave spreads to manufacturing areas and the workforce becomes ill, before recovering next year.
Tesla suspended production at its Shanghai plant on Saturday, ahead of a plan to pause most work at the plant in the last week of December. The company gave no reason.
The world’s most populous country has narrowed its definition to classify deaths as COVID-related, counting only those involving pneumonia or respiratory failure caused by COVID, raising blisters among global health experts.
The country’s health system has come under enormous strain, with staff being asked to work while sick, and retired medical workers from rural communities have been rehired to help, according to state media.
“The hospital is overflowing from top to bottom,” said Dr. Howard Bernstein of Beijing United Family Hospital.
The provincial government of Zhejiang, a large industrial province near Shanghai with a population of 65.4 million, said on Sunday it was facing around one million new daily COVID-19 infections, a number expected to double in the coming days.
Health authorities in the southeastern province of Jiangxi have said infections will peak in early January, adding that other spikes could occur when people travel next month for Lunar New Year celebrations, state media reported.
They warned that the surge of infections would last three months and that about 80% of the province’s 45 million residents could be infected.
The city of Qingdao, in eastern Shandong province, estimated that up to 530,000 residents were infected every day.
Cities across China have rushed to add intensive care units and specialized fever clinics, facilities designed to prevent further spread of contagious diseases in hospitals.
Beijing’s municipal government has stated that the number of specialized fever clinics has increased in the city from 94 to nearly 1,300, according to state media. Shanghai has 2,600 such clinics and has transferred doctors from understaffed medical departments to help.
The ability of China’s less prosperous cities to cope with a surge in severe infections remains a concern, especially as hundreds of millions of migrant rural workers are expected to be reunited with their families for the Lunar New Year.