Chinese hospitals ‘extremely busy’ as COVID spreads unchecked

Chinese hospitals came under intense pressure on Wednesday as a wave of COVID-19 infections strained resources in the last major country to treat the virus as endemic.

In an abrupt policy shift this month, China began dismantling the world’s toughest COVID regime of lockdowns and extensive testing, putting its battered economy on track for a full reopening next year.

The easing of restrictions, which came after widespread protests against them, means COVID is spreading largely unchecked and likely infecting millions of people every day, according to some international health experts.

The speed at which COVID rules were scrapped has overwhelmed China’s fragile healthcare system, prompting countries around the world “living with the virus” to consider travel restrictions on Chinese visitors.

China reported three new COVID-related deaths for Tuesday, up from one on Monday – figures that do not match the experience of much less populous countries after they reopened.

Staff at Huaxi, a major hospital in the southwestern city of Chengdu, said they were as busy taking care of patients with COVID as they had been since curbs were eased on Dec. 7.

“I’ve been doing this job for 30 years and this is the busiest I’ve ever encountered,” said an ambulance driver outside the hospital, who declined to be identified.

There were long queues inside and outside the hospital’s emergency room and at an adjacent fever clinic on Tuesday night. Most people who arrived in ambulances were given oxygen to help with their breathing.

“Almost all patients have COVID,” said an emergency room pharmacy worker.

The hospital has no stocks of COVID-specific medicines and can only provide medicines for symptoms like a cough, she said.

Zhang Yuhua, an official at Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital, said the youngest patients are elderly and critically ill with underlying conditions. She said the number of patients receiving emergency care has increased from about 100 previously to 450-550 a day, according to state media.

Pictures released by the state-run China Daily showed rows of mostly elderly patients, some breathing through oxygen tubes, being treated by medical staff in white hazmat suits in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

TRAVEL RULES

In a big step towards freer travel, China will stop requiring travelers to quarantine from January. August, authorities said this week, prompting many Chinese long cut off from the world to scrutinize travel platforms.

But while online searches for flights picked up from extremely low levels on Tuesday, local residents and travel agents suggested a return to something normal would take several months amid concerns about COVID and more cautious spending due to the impact of the pandemic.

Additionally, some governments are considering additional travel requirements for Chinese visitors.

US officials cited “the lack of transparent data, including viral genome sequence data,” as reasons.

India and Japan would require a negative COVID test for travelers from mainland China, while those who tested positive in Japan would have to quarantine for a week. Tokyo also plans to restrict airlines from increasing flights to China.

When asked about the travel requirements imposed by Japan and India, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday, “COVID measures should be scientific and moderate and should not affect the normal flow of people.”

ECONOMIC PAIN

China’s $17 trillion economy is expected to suffer a slowdown in factory production and domestic consumption as workers and shoppers fall ill.

News that China is reopening its borders sent global luxury stocks higher, but the reaction has been more muted in other corners of the market as the world’s second largest economy is likely to face subdued global demand in 2023.

US automaker Tesla plans to run a reduced production schedule at its Shanghai plant in January, extending limited production started this month into next year, according to an internal timeline verified by Reuters.

Tesla did not give a reason for the planned slowdown in production.

Once the initial shock of new infections wears off, some economists expect Chinese growth to rebound with a vengeance from what is projected to be the lowest rate in nearly half a century, around 3%, this year.

Morgan Stanley economists expect growth of 5.4% in 2023, while Goldman Sachs expects 5.2%.

© Thomson Reuters 2022.

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