BEIJING/SINGAPORE, Dec 20 – Cities across China scrambled to install 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 let the virus run free. China is mulling to revamp its major testing and medical facilities across the country to curb the uncontrolled Covid cases, which is now a global threat.
China began lifting its strict “zero COVID” lockdown and testing regime this month after curbside protests kept the virus at bay for three years, but at great cost to society and the world’s second-largest economy.
Now, as the virus spreads through a country of 1.4 billion people who lack natural immunity because they have been protected for so long, there are growing concerns about possible deaths, mutations of the virus and the impact on the economy and trade.
“Every new epidemic wave in another country brings with it the risk of new variants, and that risk is higher the larger the outbreak, and the current wave in China is shaping up to be a big one,” said Alex Cook, associate dean for research at the Saw Swee School of Public Health Hock National University of Singapore.
“However, China must inevitably go through a major wave of COVID-19 if it is to achieve endemic status in the future without lockdowns and the economic and political damage that follows.”
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday that the potential for the virus to mutate as it spreads in China is “a threat to people around the world.”
Beijing reported five COVID-related deaths on Tuesday, following two on Monday, the first fatalities reported in weeks. Overall, China has reported only 5,242 deaths from COVID since the pandemic broke out in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019, a very low number by global standards.
But doubts are growing that the statistics reflect the true impact of the disease, which is spreading through cities after China lifted curbs on Dec. 7, including most mandatory tests.
Since then, some hospitals have been flooded, pharmacies emptied of medicines, while many have voluntarily closed, disrupting delivery services.
“It’s a bit of a burden to suddenly reopen when the supply of medicine has not been sufficiently prepared,” said Zhang, a 31-year-old deliveryman 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 become 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 protective suits carrying the dead inside. Reuters was unable to determine whether the deaths were caused by COVID.
In Beijing, which has emerged as a major infection hotbed, commuters, many of them coughing into masks, returned to work on trains and the streets came alive after being largely deserted last week.
Streets in Shanghai, where COVID transmission rates are catching up with Beijing’s, were emptier and subway trains were only half full.
“People stay away because they’re sick or they’re afraid of getting sick, but mostly now I think it’s because they’re really sick,” said Yang, a trainer in an almost empty Shanghai gym.
Top health officials have softened their tone in recent weeks about the threat posed by the disease, a reversal from earlier messages that the virus must be eradicated to save lives even as the rest of the world has opened up.
They also downplayed the possibility that the now-dominant Omicron strain could become more virulent.
“The probability of a sudden major mutation … is very low,” Zhang Wenhong, a prominent infectious disease specialist, said at the forum on Sunday in comments carried by state media.
However, there are growing signs that the virus is affecting China’s fragile health system.
Cities are stepping up efforts to expand intensive care units and build fever clinics, facilities designed to prevent infectious diseases from spreading more widely in hospitals.
In the past week, major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Wenzhou have announced they have added hundreds of fever clinics, some in converted sports facilities.
The virus is also weighing on China’s economy, which is expected to grow by 3% this year, its worst performance in nearly half a century. Sick workers and truck drivers are slowing production and disrupting logistics, economists say.
China’s business confidence fell to its lowest level since January 2013 in December, a World Economic Survey showed on Monday.
Weaker industrial activity in the world’s biggest oil importer capped oil price gains and pushed copper lower.
China left key interest rates unchanged for the fourth consecutive month on Tuesday.