BEIJING/SHANGHAI: Mask-wearing Beijing and Shanghai commuters crowded subway trains on Monday as China’s two biggest cities edged closer to living with COVID-19 even as frontline medical workers scrambled to cope with millions of new infections.

After three years of harsh anti-coronavirus curbs, President Xi Jinping scrapped China’s zero-COVID policy of lockdowns and relentless testing on Dec. 7 in the face of public protests and a widening outbreak.

“Our country’s new coronavirus epidemic prevention and control is facing new situations and new tasks,” the official Xinhua news agency cited Xi as saying on Monday in remarks on public health, marking one of his first references to China’s recent policy shift.

The virus is now spreading largely unchecked across the country of 1.4 billion people, with doubts mounting among health experts and residents about Beijing’s statistics, which show no new COVID deaths reported for the six days through Sunday.

Doctors say hospitals are overwhelmed with five- to six-times more patients than usual, mostly elderly.

All levels of government must further intensify their efforts to ensure demand for medical treatment and supplies is being met, Premier Li Keqiang was also quoted by Xinhua in its report as saying.

“I am prepared to live with the pandemic,” said 25-year-old Shanghai resident Lin Zixin. “Lockdowns are not a long-term solution.”

This year, in an effort to prevent infections from spiralling out of control across the country, the 25 million people in Shanghai - China’s commercial hub endured two months of bitter isolation under lockdown that lasted until June 1.

Shanghai’s lively streets on Monday contrasted sharply with the atmosphere in April and May when hardly anyone went outside.

An annual Christmas market held at the Bund, a commercial district in Shanghai, was popular with city residents over the weekend. Crowds thronged the winter festive season at Shanghai Disneyland and Beijing’s Universal Studios on Sunday, queuing up for rides in Christmas-themed outfits.

The number of trips to scenic spots in the southern city of Guangzhou this weekend increased by 132% from last weekend, local newspaper The 21st Century Business Herald reported.

“Now basically everyone has returned to a normal routine,” said a 29-year-old Beijing resident surnamed Han.

China is the last major country to move toward treating COVID as endemic, lifting lockdowns and nearly all other restrictions on daily life. Its containment measures had slowed the $17 trillion economy to its lowest growth rate in nearly half a century, disrupting global supply chains and trade.

The world’s second-largest economy is expected to suffer further in the short term, as the COVID wave spreads toward manufacturing areas and workforces fall ill, before bouncing back next year, analysts say.

Tesla suspended production at its Shanghai factory on Saturday, advancing a plan to pause most work at the plant in the last week of December. The company gave no reason.

OVERWHELMED

The world’s most populous country has narrowed its definition for classifying deaths as COVID-related, counting only those involving COVID-caused pneumonia or respiratory failure, raising eyebrows among world health experts.

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