China is staring down a potentially massive coronavirus surge as it backs away from strict mitigation measures, with reports of long lines outside fever clinics, medicine shortages and panic buying across the county.
“This surge is going to come very fast, unfortunately. That’s the worst thing,” Ben Cowling of the University of Hong Kong told NPR. “If it was slower, China would have time to prepare. But this is so fast. In Beijing, there’s already a load of cases and [in] other major cities because it’s spreading so fast.”
And a decline in official testing means the extent of the surge is unknown.
China reported more than 2,200 symptomatic COVID-19 cases on Wednesday with roughly a fifth of those cases coming from Beijing. But that number is a drastic undercount of the true number of cases considering it does not take into account asymptomatic infections, which China’s National Health Commission on Wednesday said it would no longer track.
“It is impossible to accurately grasp the actual number of asymptomatic infections,” the commission said in a notice.
But the vast numbers of infections and fear of catching the virus are causing areas like Beijing to look like they are still under lockdown orders. With hordes of people out sick, many businesses have come to a standstill and once-populated streets are empty.
Cartoons on the Coronavirus
The relaxation of the country’s strict “zero COVID” strategy was expected to be a massive boon for the economy, but what turned out to be a modest boost might have already faded away as infections surge. Still, economists do expect the country to have a strong rebound, but it may take months.
“We reckon that the incoming migration around the Chinese New Year holiday in late January could bring about an unprecedented spread of Covid and severe disruptions to the economy,” Nomura analysts wrote in a report published Thursday. “We continue to caution that the road to a full reopening may still be painful and bumpy.”
Analysts have also expressed concern that the relaxation of the strict measures – which came after protesters took to the streets – paired with the low vaccination rate of China’s elderly population could lead to a massive coronavirus wave in the country.
“Authorities have let cases in Beijing and other cities spread to the point where resuming restrictions, testing and tracing would be largely ineffective in bringing outbreaks under control,” analysts at Eurasia Group said in a note on Thursday, according to Reuters. “Upward of 1 million people could die from COVID in the coming months.”
But the World Health Organization on Wednesday said that coronavirus cases were rising in China before officials relaxed the “zero COVID” strategy.
“There’s a narrative at the moment that China lifted the restrictions and all of a sudden the disease is out of control,” WHO’s Mike Ryan said at a press briefing on Wednesday. “The disease was spreading intensively because I believe the control measures in themselves were not stopping the disease. And I believe China decided strategically that was not the best option anymore.”
Cowling gave a similar assessment.
“This is a really high level of transmissibility,” Cowling said. “That’s why China couldn’t keep their zero COVID policy going. The virus is just too transmissible even for them.”
China is struggling with omicron subvariant BF.7, which is a spinoff of BA.5. It is also present in the U.S. but appears to be outcompeted by omicron subvariants XBB and BQ.
Officials in China have been putting on a confident face despite the mounting challenges.
“We will certainly be able to smoothly get through the peak of the epidemic,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a press briefing on Thursday.