China seeks to strengthen healthcare system as COVID surge sparks global concern

Cities across China scrambled to install hospital beds and build clinics for fever screening on Tuesday as authorities reported five more deaths and international concerns mounted over Beijing’s surprise decision to let the virus run free.

China this month began dismantling its strict “zero-COVID” regime of lockdowns and testing following curb protests that had kept the virus at bay for three years, but at a high cost to society and the world’s second-biggest economy.

Now, as the virus sweeps through a country of 1.4 billion people who lack natural immunity from being shielded for so long, there are growing concerns about possible deaths, virus mutations and the impact on the economy and trade.

“Each new wave of epidemics in another country carries the risk of new variants, and that risk increases the larger the outbreak, and the current wave in China is shaping up to be a big one,” said Alex Cook, vice dean for research at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.

“However, China must inevitably endure a major 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 the virus’s potential for mutating as it spreads in China is “a threat to people everywhere.”

Beijing on Tuesday reported five COVID-related deaths, followed by two on Monday, which were the first fatalities reported in weeks. Overall, China has reported just 5,242 COVID-related deaths since the pandemic broke out in downtown Wuhan in late 2019, a very low number by global standards.

But there are growing doubts the statistics reflect the true impact of a disease raging through cities after China dropped the curbs on December 7, including most mandatory tests.

Since then, some hospitals have been inundated, pharmacies drained of medicines, while many people have entered self-imposed curfews, straining delivery services.

“It’s a bit distressing to suddenly reopen when the supply of medicines wasn’t adequately prepared,” said Zhang, a 31-year-old delivery worker in Beijing, who declined to give his full name. “But I support the reopening.”

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

In the capital Beijing, security forces patrolled the entrance of a designated COVID-19 crematorium, where Reuters journalists on Saturday saw a long line of hearses and workers in hazmat suits carrying the dead inside. Reuters could not determine whether the deaths were due to COVID.

‘BECOME SICK’

In Beijing, which has emerged as the main source of infection, commuters, many coughing into their masks, were back on trains to work and the streets were springing to life after being largely deserted last week.

Streets in Shanghai, where COVID transmission rates are catching up with Beijing, were emptier and subways half-full.

“People stay away because they’re sick or afraid of getting sick, but now I mostly think because they’re actually sick,” said Yang, a trainer at a nearly empty gym in Shanghai.

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

They have also downplayed the possibility that the now dominant Omicron strain could become more virulent.

“The chance of a sudden large mutation… is very small,” Zhang Wenhong, a well-known infectious disease specialist, told a forum in state media comments on Sunday.

Still, there are mounting signs that the virus is ravaging China’s fragile healthcare system.

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

Over the past week, major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Wenzhou announced they have added hundreds of fever clinics, some in converted sports complexes.

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

A World Economics survey showed on Monday that China’s business confidence fell to its lowest level since January 2013 in December.

Weaker industrial activity from the world’s largest oil importers has capped gains in crude prices and pushed copper lower.

China left interest rates unchanged for the fourth straight month on Tuesday.

© Thomson Reuters 2022.

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