Beijing’s pessimism over COVID-19 deepened on Sunday with the closure of many shops and other businesses, with an expert warning of many thousands of new coronavirus cases as anger over China’s previous COVID-19 policies gave way to concerns about dealing with the infection.
China lifted most of its strict COVID restrictions on Wednesday after unprecedented protests last month, but cities already struggling with their most severe outbreaks, such as Beijing, saw a sharp decline in economic activity after rules such as regular testing were removed.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many businesses have been forced to close due to infected workers quarantining at home, while many other people choose not to go out due to the increased risk of infection.
Zhong Nanshan, a leading Chinese epidemiologist, told state media that the omnin strain of the virus prevalent in China is highly transmissible and that one infected person can transmit it to 18 other people.
“We can see that hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of people are infected in several major cities,” Zhong said.
With regular COVID testing of Beijing residents eliminated and reserved only for groups like health workers, official counts of new cases have plummeted. Health authorities reported 1,661 new infections for Beijing on Saturday, down 42% from 3,974 on Dec. 6, a day before national policies were drastically relaxed.
But evidence suggests there are many more cases in the city of nearly 22 million people where everyone seems to know someone who contracted COVID.
“In my company, the number of people who are COVID-negative is close to zero,” said a woman who works for a tourism and events company in Beijing who asked to be identified only as Nancy. “We realize that this cannot be avoided – everyone will have to work from home,” he said.
Sunday is a normal working day for shops in Beijing and is usually very busy, especially in places like the historic Shichahai neighborhood, where there are many boutiques and cafes.
But few people were outside on Sunday and shopping malls in Chaoyang, Beijing’s most populous district, were virtually deserted with many lounges, restaurants and shops closed.
Economists widely expect China’s path to economic health to be uneven, as shocks like the jobs crisis due to workers reporting sick delay a full recovery for some time yet.
“The transition from zero-COVID will eventually allow consumer spending patterns to return to normal, but an increased risk of infection will keep in-person spending depressed for months after reopening,” Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics, said in a note.
China’s economy may grow 1.6% in the first quarter of 2023 from a year earlier, and 4.9% in the second, according to Capital Economics.
Epidemiologist Zhong also said it would be a few months before it returned to normal.
“My opinion is in the first half of next year, after March,” he said.
While China has removed most of its national COVID restrictions, its international borders are still largely closed to foreigners, including tourists. Incoming travelers are subject to five days of quarantine in centralized government facilities and an additional three days of self-monitoring at home.
But there are even signs that rule could change.
When staff at Chengdu city’s main international airport were being asked if quarantine rules were being relaxed, he said that starting Saturday whether or not one needed to do the three days of home quarantine would be up to each person’s neighborhood authorities.