China’s cities struggle with first wave of COVID-19 as wider spread looms

The streets of China’s major cities were eerily quiet on Sunday as people stayed at home to protect themselves from a surge in COVID-19 cases that has hit urban centers from north to south.

China is currently in the first of three expected waves of COVID cases this winter, according to the country’s chief epidemiologist, Wu Zunyou. Cases could multiply across the country if people follow typical travel patterns of returning to their home areas in a mass traffic movement for the Lunar New Year holiday next month.

China has yet to officially report any deaths from COVID since Dec. 7, when the country abruptly ended most key restrictions for a zero-tolerance policy on COVID after unprecedented public protests against the protocol . The strategy had been championed by President Xi Jinping.

As part of the easing of zero-Covid restrictions, mass testing for the virus has ended, casting doubt on whether officially reported case numbers can capture the full scale of the outbreak. China reported about 2,097 new symptomatic COVID infections on December 17.

In Beijing, the spread of the highly transmissible variant of Omicron has already affected services from catering to package delivery. Funeral homes and crematoria in the city of 22 million are also struggling to keep up with demand.

Posts on social media also showed empty subways in the northwestern Chinese city of Xian, while internet users complained about delays in deliveries.

In Chengdu, the streets were deserted, but food delivery times were improving, said a resident surnamed Zhang, after services began to adapt to the recent surge in cases.

However, he said getting the antigen test kits was still difficult. His recent order had been redirected to hospitals, he said, citing the supplier.

In Shanghai, authorities said schools should move most classes online starting Monday, and in nearby Hangzhou most school classes were encouraged to end the winter semester early.

In Guangzhou, those already taking online classes and preschoolers should not prepare to go back to school, the education bureau said.

At a conference in Beijing on Saturday, chief epidemiologist Wu of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said the current outbreak would peak this winter and stretch into three waves over about three months, according to a state media report of his speech.

The first wave would run from mid-December to mid-January, mainly in cities, before a second wave began from late January to mid-February next year, triggered by the movement of people before the week-long New Year’s holiday.

China will celebrate the Lunar New Year starting in January. 21. The holidays typically see hundreds of millions of people traveling home to spend time with family.

A third wave of cases would stretch from late February to mid-March as people returned to work after the holidays, Wu said.

A US-based research institute said this week that the country could see an explosion of cases and that more than a million people in China could die from COVID by 2023.

Wu said that severe cases in China had declined over the past few years, and that vaccination that has already taken place offers some degree of protection. He said the vulnerable in the community should be protected, while recommending booster shots for the general public.

Nearly 87 percent of those over 60 have been fully vaccinated, but only 66.4 percent of those over 80 have completed a full course of vaccination, the official Xinhua news agency said.

© Thomson Reuters 2022.

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