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China struggles with COVID infections after controls are relaxed

China struggles with COVID infections after controls are relaxed
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BEIJING (AP) — A number of COVID-19 cases in schools and businesses were reported in areas across China on Friday, according to the ruling Communist Party relaxed antivirus rules while trying to reverse a deepening economic slump.

While official data showed a fall in new cases, they no longer cover large swathes of the population after the government ended mandatory testing for many people on Wednesday. That was part of dramatic changes that aimed to gradually emerge “Zero COVID” Restrictions who have locked millions of people in their homes and sparked protests and calls for President Xi Jinping to resign.

“Very few people come in because there are so many cases,” said Gang Xueping, a waitress at a Beijing restaurant. “The country has just opened up. The first month or two will definitely be serious. Nobody has gotten used to that yet.”

In other cities, social media users said colleagues or classmates were ill and some businesses had closed due to staff shortages. These reports, many of which could not be independently verified, did not indicate how far the total number of cases might be above the official number.

“I’m really speechless. Half of the company’s employees are sick, but they still don’t let us all stay home,” said a post signed Tunnel Mouth on the popular platform Sina Weibo. The user did not provide a name and replied not on questions sent through the account stating that the user is in Beijing.

The reports reflect the experiences of the United States, Europe and other countries that have grappled with outbreaks while trying to restore business operations. But they are a staggering change for China, where “zero-COVID,” which aims to isolate every case, disrupted daily life and dampened economic activity but kept infection rates low.

The Xi government began easing controls on Nov. 11 after promising to reduce their costs and disruption. Imports fell 10.9% yoy in November, indicating weak demand. Auto sales fell 26.5% in October.

“Easing COVID controls will lead to larger outbreaks,” Eurasia Group’s Neil Thomas and Laura Gloudeman said in a report. “But Beijing is unlikely to return to the sweeping blanket lockdowns that crashed the economy earlier this year.”

The changes suggest the ruling party is relaxing its goal of preventing virus transmission, the basis of “zero-COVID,” but officials say the strategy is still in effect.

The restrictions will likely have to remain in place until at least mid-2023, say public health experts and economists. They say millions of older people need to be vaccinated, which will take months, and hospitals need to be empowered to cope with a surge in cases. Officials announced a vaccination campaign last week.

On Friday, the government reported 16,797 new cases, including 13,160 without symptoms. That was about a fifth down from the previous day and less than half of last week’s daily high above 40,000.

Other changes were announced on Wednesday Allow people with mild COVID-19 cases to isolate at home instead of going to a quarantine center, which some complained was overcrowded and unsanitary. This was a major nuisance to the public.

A requirement for tube drivers, supermarket shoppers and others to show negative virus tests was also dropped, although schools and hospitals will still require them.

A post signed by a user in Dazhou, a southwestern city in Sichuan province, said all but five students in a public school class of 46 were infected.

“It’s really amazing that the school insists that students go to school,” the user wrote. The user contacted through the account refused to provide a name or other details.

Requiring hundreds of millions of people in some areas to be tested as often as once a day for the past two years has helped the government catch asymptomatic infections. Terminating this approach reduces the cost of monitoring employees and customers in offices, stores and other businesses. But it increases the risk that they could spread the virus.

This week’s changes follow protests that erupted on November 11. 25 in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities against the human cost of “zero COVID”.

It’s not clear if any of the changes were in response to the protests, which died down after a crackdown by security forces.

The ruling party’s Politburo on Wednesday made stabilizing sluggish economic growth its priority, although leaders said local officials are still expected to protect the public.

“The return to growth and exit from zero-COVID is clear from the top level,” said Larry Hu and Yuxiao Zhang of Macquarie Group, an Australian bank, in a report. However, they warned “uncertainties remain high”, including “how disruptive exiting zero COVID could be”.

Party leaders stopped talking about the official annual growth target of 5.5% after the economy contracted 2.6% qoq in the three months to June. That was after Shanghai and other industrial hubs shut down for up to two months to combat outbreaks.

Private sector economists have lowered forecasts for annual growth to below 3%, which would be less than half of last year’s 8.1% and among the weakest in decades.

Social media posts suggested some cities could be having outbreaks that weren’t reflected in official numbers.

Posts on Thursday from 18 people who said they were in Baoding, a city of 11 million southwest of Beijing, reported that they had tested positive with home kits or had a fever, sore throat and headache. Meanwhile, the Baoding municipal government reported no new cases since Tuesday.

Drugstores have been overrun with customers buying medicines to treat sore throats and headaches after rules were dropped requiring pharmacists to report these purchases, leading to fears a customer could be forced into a quarantine centre.

Also on Friday, the market regulator said the prices of some drugs, including Lianhua Qingwen, a traditional flu drug, rose by as much as 500% over the past month. It said sellers could be penalized for price gouging.

Queues formed outside hospitals, although it was not clear how many people wanted treatment for COVID-19 symptoms.

People waited four to five hours to get to the fever clinic at Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital, said a woman who answered the phone there, giving only her last name, Sun. She said no virus test is required, but patients must show a “health code” app on their smartphone that tracks their vaccine status and whether they’ve been to areas at high risk of infection.

Hong Kong, which is enforcing its own antivirus strategy, has seen a similar surge in cases as the southern Chinese city tries to revive its struggling economy by relaxing travel controls and opening hours of restaurants and pubs.

Hong Kong reported 75,000 new cases over the past week, about 25% more than the previous week. But that doesn’t include an unknown number of people staying at home with COVID-19 symptoms and never reporting to the government.

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AP news assistant Caroline Chen in Guangzhou, China, researcher Yu Bing in Beijing, and AP contributors Kanis Leung in Hong Kong and Dake Kang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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