China struggles with COVID infections after easing controls

China struggles with COVID infections after easing controls
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BEIJING (AP) — Cases of COVID-19 were reported in schools and businesses in various parts of China after the ruling Communist Party on Friday. relaxes antivirus rules trying to reverse the deepening economic recession.

While official data shows a drop in new cases, they no longer cover large swaths of the population after the government suspended mandatory testing for many people on Wednesday. This was part of the dramatic changes that were gradually unfolding “zero COVID” restrictions locked millions of people in their homes and sparked protests and calls for the resignation of President Xi Jinping.

“There are very few people who come in because there are so many cases,” says Gang Xueping, a waiter at a Beijing restaurant. “The country has just opened. The first month or two will definitely be tough. No one is used to it yet.”

In other cities, social media users said co-workers or classmates were sick, and some businesses were closed due to a lack of workers. From these accounts, many of which could not be independently verified, it was unclear how much higher the total number of cases might have been than the official figure.

“I’m really speechless. Half of the company’s employees are sick, but they still don’t let us all stay at home,” said a post by Tunnel Mouth on the popular Sina Weibo platform. The user did not provide a name and did not respond to questions sent through an account that said the user was based in Beijing.

The reports reflect the experience of the United States, Europe and other countries dealing with epidemics as they try to resume business activities. But it’s a jarring shift for China, where “zero COVID” — which aims to isolate every case — has disrupted daily life and depressed economic activity but kept infection rates low.

Xi’s government began loosening controls in November. 11 after promising to reduce their cost and disruption. Imports fell 10.9% in November from a year ago, a sign of weak demand. Car sales decreased by 26.5% in October.

“Easing control of COVID will lead to larger outbreaks,” Neil Thomas and Laura Gloudeman of the Eurasia Group said in a report. “But Beijing is unlikely to return to the extended blanket lockdowns that crippled the economy earlier this year.”

The changes appear to ease the ruling party’s “zero COVID” goal of preventing transmission of the virus, but officials say the strategy is still in place.

Public health experts and economists say the restrictions should remain in place until at least mid-2023. They say millions of elderly people need to be vaccinated, which will take months and hospitals need to be strengthened to cope with the surge in cases. Officials announced a vaccination drive last week.

On Friday, the government reported 16,797 new cases, including 13,160 without symptoms. That was about a fifth less than the previous day and less than half of last week’s daily peak of more than 40,000.

More changes were announced on Wednesday Allow people with mild cases of COVID-19 to isolate at home instead of going to a quarantine center, which some complain is overcrowded and unsanitary. This caused a great irritation to the public.

The requirement for subway riders, supermarket shoppers and others to show negative virus tests has also been lifted, although they are still required for schools and hospitals.

A post signed by a user on Where Dreams Begin in Starlight in Dazhou, southwestern Sichuan province, said all but five students at a public school with a population of 46 were infected.

“It’s really amazing how the school insists the students go to school,” the user wrote. The user contacted through the account refused to provide name or other information.

Over the past two years, a requirement to test hundreds of millions of people once a day in some regions has helped the government detect infections without symptoms. Stopping this approach reduces the cost of monitoring employees and customers in offices, stores and other establishments. But this increases their risk of spreading the virus.

This week’s changes follow protests that began in November. 25 Against the human cost of “zero COVID” in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities.

It is unclear whether any of the changes were in response to protests that died down after a security crackdown.

On Wednesday, the ruling party’s Politburo declared stabilizing weak economic growth a priority, although leaders said local officials would still protect the public.

“A rebound to growth and an exit from zero COVID is clear from the highest levels,” Larry Hu and Yuxiao Zhang of Australian bank Macquarie Group said in a report. However, they cautioned that “uncertainties remain high,” including “how disruptive the exit of zero COVID could be.”

Party leaders stopped talking about an official annual growth target of 5.5% after the economy shrank 2.6% in the three months to June from the previous quarter. That was after Shanghai and other industrial centers were shut down for up to two months to fight outbreaks.

Private sector economists cut their annual growth forecasts below 3%, which would be less than half of last year’s 8.1% and among the weakest in decades.

Social media posts have suggested that some cities may have outbreaks that are not reflected in official figures.

Posts dated Thursday from 18 people who said they were in Baoding, a city of 11 million southwest of Beijing, said they had tested positive using home kits or had fever, sore throat and headaches. Meanwhile, the Baoding city government reported no new cases since Tuesday.

Customers buying drugs to treat sore throats and headaches stormed pharmacies after rules requiring pharmacists to report those purchases were lifted, prompting fears the customer could be forced into a quarantine centre.

On Friday, the market regulator announced that the prices of some drugs, including the traditional flu treatment Lianhua Qingwen, had risen by up to 500% over the past month. He said that sellers can be punished for price increase.

Lines formed outside hospitals, though it was unclear how many people sought treatment for COVID-19 symptoms.

People waited four to five hours to enter the fever clinic at Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing, according to a woman who answered the phone there and gave only her last name, Sun. He said no virus tests are required, but patients must show a smartphone “health code” app that tracks vaccination status and whether they’ve been in areas considered high-risk for infection.

Hong Kong, which has implemented its own anti-virus strategy, has faced a similar surge as the southern Chinese city tries to revive its struggling economy by easing controls on travel and restaurant and pub opening hours.

Hong Kong reported 75,000 new cases last week, up nearly 25% from the previous week. But that doesn’t include the unknown number of people who stayed home with COVID-19 symptoms and never reported to the government.


AP news assistant Caroline Chen in Guangzhou, China, researcher Yu Bing in Beijing, and AP writers Kanis Leung in Hong Kong and Dake Kang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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