China’s cities battle first wave of COVID surge as further spread looms

Streets in major Chinese cities were eerily quiet on Sunday as people stayed 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 as people follow typical travel patterns and return to their home areas in a mass-transport movement for next month’s Lunar New Year holiday.

China has also yet to officially report any COVID-related deaths since December 7, when the country abruptly ended most of the restrictions crucial to a zero-COVID-tolerance policy following 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, raising doubts as to whether officially reported case numbers can capture the full extent of the outbreak. China reported about 2,097 new symptomatic COVID infections as of Dec. 17.

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

Social media posts also showed empty subways in northwest China’s city of Xian, while netizens complained about delivery delays.

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

However, it is still difficult to get antigen test kits, she said. Her last order was diverted to hospitals, she said, citing the provider.

In Shanghai, authorities said schools should bring most classes online from Monday, and in nearby Hangzhou, most school classes have been told to end the winter semester early.

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

According to a state media report on his speech, chief epidemiologist Wu of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention said at a conference in Beijing on Saturday that the current outbreak will peak this winter and progress in three waves for about three months.

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

China celebrates the Lunar New Year from 1st 21st. On public holidays, hundreds of millions of people usually travel home to spend time with family.

A third wave of cases would run from late February to mid-March when people returned to work after the holiday, Wu said.

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

Wu said severe cases in China have been declining in recent years and that vaccination already in place offers a certain level of protection. He said the vulnerable in the community should be protected while recommending booster shots for the general public.

Nearly 87% of those over 60 are fully vaccinated, but only 66.4% of those over 80 have completed a full vaccination cycle, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

© Thomson Reuters 2022.

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