China says tracking Covid cases ‘impossible’ as infections rise

China’s top health authority said on Wednesday the true extent of coronavirus infections in the country is now “impossible” to trace, and officials warn cases are rising rapidly in Beijing after the government abruptly abandoned its zero-Covid policy.

Beijing’s decision to scrap mass testing and quarantines after nearly three years of trying to eradicate the virus has prompted a corresponding drop in officially reported infections, which hit an all-time high just last month.

But those numbers no longer reflect reality as much of the country no longer requires testing, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) confirmed on Wednesday.

“Many asymptomatic individuals no longer participate in nucleic acid testing, so it is impossible to accurately record the true number of asymptomatic individuals infected,” the NHC said in a statement on Wednesday.

This comes after Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said new infections in the capital were “increasing rapidly”.

Chinese leaders are determined to move forward even as the country faces a surge in cases that experts fear it is ill-equipped to deal with. Millions of vulnerable elderly are still not fully vaccinated and hospitals lack the resources to deal with an influx of infected patients.

Authorities said on Wednesday they would start allowing some vulnerable groups, including those over 60, to get a second booster shot six months after their first.

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A line of about 50 people stretched out the door of a fever clinic in Beijing on Wednesday, with several residents telling AFP they were infected with Covid.

“If we queue here, we are basically all infected. We wouldn’t come here if we weren’t,” said one person waiting in line.

“I’m here with a senior member of my family, he’s had a fever for almost 10 straight days now so we’re coming to check him out.”

– Beijing is fighting –

Restaurants, shops and parks are now allowed to reopen, but residents are not finding the path to living with the virus easy.

Many with symptoms have chosen to self-medicate at home, while others are staying home to protect themselves from infection.

Businesses are also struggling as Covid-19 grips the population and hits their workforce.

As a result, the streets of the capital are largely empty.

“Basically, I’m following the Beijing government’s policy that older people should stay at home and go out as little as possible,” said a resident in his 80s, who declined to be named.

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He said he wasn’t overly concerned because he thought Omicron was mild, but told AFP he thinks “there shouldn’t be complete relaxation and freedom.”

“If we’re dead, how can we be free, right?” he said.

Local residents have complained about running out of cold medicine and long queues at pharmacies, while Chinese search giant Baidu said searches for the fever-lowering ibuprofen rose 430 percent in the past week.

Rising demand for rapid antigen tests and medicines has created a sky-high black market, while buyers resort to sourcing the goods from “dealers” whose contacts are shared through WeChat groups.

Authorities are cracking down, with market regulators slapping a 300,000 yuan ($43,000) fine on a Beijing company for selling overpriced test kits, local Beijing News reported on Tuesday.

That has changed fundamentally in a country where infection with the virus was once taboo and recovered patients were discriminated against. Now people are using social media to show off their test results and provide detailed descriptions of their experiences during their illness.

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“When my body temperature rose above 37.2 degrees, I started adding some sugar and salt to my lemon water,” Beijing-based xiaohongshu user Nina wrote in an account meant as advice for those who haven’t already were infected.

Wang, another Beijing resident in his 50s, told AFP: “I think everyone has gotten used to it. They have moved on.”

“I don’t think people are that fragile.”

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