China struggles with COVID infections after controls ease

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BEIJING (AP) — An outbreak of COVID-19 cases in schools and businesses was reported Friday in areas across China after the ruling Communist Party relaxed anti-virus regulations as it tries to reverse a deepening economic malaise.

While official data showed a drop in new cases, they no longer cover large segments of the population after the government ended mandatory testing for many people on Wednesday. That was part of dramatic changes aimed at gradually moving out of “zero COVID” restrictions which has locked millions of people in their homes and sparked protests and demands that President Xi Jinping resign.

“Very few people come in because there are so many cases,” said Gang Xueping, a waitress at a restaurant in Beijing. “The country has just opened up. The first one or two months will definitely get serious. Nobody is used to this yet.”

In other cities, social media users said colleagues or classmates were sick and some businesses had closed due to a lack of staff. Those reports, many of which could not be independently confirmed, did not make it clear how far above the official figure the total number of cases would be.

“I am really speechless. Half of the company’s people are sick, but they still won’t let us all stay home,” said a post signed Tunnel Mouth on the popular Sina Weibo platform. The user did not name or respond to inquiries sent through the account, stating that the user was in Beijing.

The reports reflect the experiences of the United States, Europe and other countries that have struggled with outbreaks as they try to restore business activity. But they are a shocking change for China, where “zero COVID,” which aims to isolate every case, disrupted daily life and stifled economic activity but kept infection rates low.

Xi’s government began easing controls on Nov. 11 after promising to cut costs and disruptions. Imports fell 10.9% year-on-year in November in a sign of weak demand. Car sales fell 26.5% in October.

“Easing COVID controls will lead to bigger outbreaks,” Eurasia Group’s Neil Thomas and Laura Gloudeman said in a report. “But Beijing is unlikely to return to the extensive blanket lockdowns that collapsed the economy earlier this year.”

The changes suggest the ruling party is relaxing its goal of preventing virus transmission, the “zero COVID” basis, but officials say that strategy is still in place.

Restrictions should likely remain in place at least until mid-2023, say public health experts and economists. They say millions of elderly people need to be vaccinated, which will take months, and hospitals need to be strengthened to handle a surge in cases. Officials announced a vaccination campaign last week.

On Friday, the government reported 16,797 new cases, of which 13,160 were asymptomatic. That was about a fifth lower than the previous day and less than half of last week’s daily peak above 40,000.

More changes announced Wednesday have people with mild COVID-19 cases self-isolate at home instead of going to a quarantine center that some complained was crowded and unsanitary. That addressed a major annoyance to the public.

A requirement for subway drivers, supermarket shoppers and others to show negative virus tests was also dropped, though they are still required for schools and hospitals.

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

“It’s really amazing that the school insists that students go to school,” the user wrote. The user, who was contacted through the account, declined to provide a name or other details.

Requiring hundreds of millions of people to be tested as often as once a day in some areas over the past two years has helped the government detect infections without symptoms. Ending that approach reduces the cost of monitoring employees and customers in offices, stores and other businesses. But it increases the risk of them spreading the virus.

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

It’s not clear if any of the changes were in response to the protests, which died down after a security crackdown.

The ruling party’s Politburo declared on Wednesday that stabilizing weak economic growth is its priority, though leaders have said local officials are still expected to protect the public.

“The return to growth and exit from zero COVID are evident from the highest level,” Larry Hu and Yuxiao Zhang of Macquarie Group, an Australian bank, said in a report. However, they cautioned that “uncertainties remain high,” including “how disruptive the exit from zero COVID could be.”

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

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

Social media reports suggested that some cities may have had outbreaks that were not reflected in official numbers.

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

Drugstores were harassed by customers buying drugs to treat sore throats and headaches after rules requiring pharmacists to report those purchases were dropped, sparking fears a customer could be forced into a quarantine center.

Also Friday, the market regulator announced that prices of some drugs, including Lianhua Qingwen, a traditional flu treatment, have risen by as much as 500% in the past month. It said sellers could be penalized for price gouging.

Queues formed outside hospitals, though it was not clear how many people wanted treatment for COVID-19 symptoms.

People waited four to five hours to get to the fever clinic at Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital, according to a woman who answered the phone there and would only give her last name, Sun. She said no virus test was required, but patients were required to show a smartphone app “health code” that tracks their vaccine status and whether they have been in areas with a high risk of infection.

Hong Kong, which enforces its own anti-virus strategy, has suffered a similar rise in cases as the southern Chinese city attempts to revive its struggling economy by tightening controls on travel and opening hours of restaurants and pubs. relax.

Hong Kong reported 75,000 new cases in the past week, an increase of about 25% from the previous week. But that doesn’t include an unknown number of people who stay home with COVID-19 symptoms and never report to the government.

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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.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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