China is scrambling to strengthen its health system as the surge in COVID-19 raises global concerns

Cities across China scrambled to set up hospital beds and build fever screening clinics on Tuesday as authorities reported five more deaths and international concern grew over Beijing’s surprise decision to stop let the virus run freely.

China this month began dismantling its strict “zero-Covid” lockdown and testing regime after protests against curbs that had kept the virus at bay for three years, but at great cost to society and the second largest economy in the world.

Now, as the virus sweeps through a country of 1.4 billion people who have no natural immunity after being protected for so long, there is growing concern about the potential deaths, mutations of the virus and the impact in the economy and trade.

“Every new epidemic wave in another country carries the risk of new variants, and that risk is greater the larger the outbreak, and the current wave in China is shaping up to be a big one,” said Alex Cook , China Vice Dean for Research. Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore.

“However, China must inevitably experience a large wave of COVID-19 if it is to reach an endemic state, in a future without lockdowns and the resulting economic and political damage.”

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday that the possibility of the virus mutating as it spreads in China is “a threat to people everywhere.”

Beijing reported five COVID-related deaths on Tuesday, following two on Monday, the first fatalities in weeks. In total, China has recorded just 5,242 deaths from COVID since the pandemic emerged in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019, a very low toll by global standards.

But there are growing doubts that the statistics reflect the true impact of a disease that swept through cities after China left its borders, including mostly mandatory testing on December 7.

Since then, some hospitals have been flooded, pharmacies have been emptied of medicines, while many people have been put into self-imposed lockdowns, with delivery services running out.

“It’s a bit of a burden to suddenly reopen when the medicine supply was not ready enough,” said Zhang, a 31-year-old delivery worker in Beijing who declined to give his full name. “But I support reopening.”

Some health experts estimate that 60% of people in China, equivalent to 10% of the world’s population, could be infected in the coming months and that more than 2 million could die.

In the capital, Beijing, security guards patrolled the entrance to a designated COVID-19 crematorium where Reuters reporters on Saturday saw a long line of hearses and workers in hazmat suits carrying the dead to the interior Reuters was unable to establish whether the deaths were due to COVID.

‘SICK’

In Beijing, which has become the main infection hotspot, commuters, many coughing into masks, were returning to trains to work and streets were returning to life after being largely deserted last week.

The streets of Shanghai, where COVID transmission rates were catching up with those of Beijing, were emptier and subway trains were only half-full.

“People stay away because they’re sick or they’re afraid of getting sick, but especially now, I think it’s because they’re actually sick,” said Yang, a trainer at an almost empty Shanghai gym.

Senior health officials have softened their tone on the threat posed by the disease in recent weeks, a reversal from earlier messages that the virus had to be eradicated to save lives even as the rest of the world opened up .

They have also been downplaying the possibility that the now-dominant Omicron strain will become more virulent.

“The probability of a sudden large mutation … is very low,” Zhang Wenhong, a leading infectious disease specialist, said at a forum in comments reported by state media on Sunday.

However, there are growing signs that the virus is affecting China’s fragile health care system.

Cities are stepping up efforts to expand intensive care units and build fever clinics, facilities designed to prevent the wider spread of contagious diseases in hospitals.

Last week, major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Wenzhou announced they had added hundreds of fever clinics, some in converted sports facilities.

The virus is also hitting China’s economy, which is expected to grow 3% this year, its worst performance in nearly half a century. Workers and truckers falling ill are slowing production and disrupting logistics, economists say.

A survey of the world economy showed on Monday that China’s business confidence fell in December to its lowest level since January 2013.

Weaker industrial activity in the world’s top oil importer has limited gains in crude oil prices and pushed copper lower.

China kept benchmark lending rates unchanged for a fourth straight month on Tuesday.

© Thomson Reuters 2022.

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