Beijing streets are left without a crowd, with shopping centers devoid of people following a surge in Covid-19 cases.
The spike in cases in Beijing is the first significant increase since the country was hit by the pandemic more than two years ago. For instance, in the shopping district of Sanlitun, restaurants and shops did not have any customers.
Moreover, other establishments only served takeouts and were running under a limited number of workers. In an ironic turn of events, several health experts attribute the increase to the easing of the Covid-19 policy of the country, which the public has highly protested for several weeks.
Many businesses showed signs of slowing down amid the rise in Covid-19 cases. Some workers refused to work because they had fallen ill. Many consumers also stayed at home in fear of contracting Covid-19. According to a source, 21 out of 24 authorities in Beijing tasked to monitor residential activities have shown signs of Covid-19.
“As our superiors are mostly infected, there’s not much work given to us. (The usual) events, lectures, performances, and parent-child activities will not be held,” said the source.
Beijing only had minimal cases weeks before. However, there were unprecedented cases recorded in recent weeks. The immense number of Covid-19 instances marks the first large-scale infections since Wuhan in 2020.
However, authorities have little statistical data to graph the extent of the virus’ spread. Moreover, unlike before, China backed down on mandatory and widespread Covid-19 testing across cities, which made it difficult to track the actual number of positive cases in several regions.
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Covid-19 cases cannot be precisely counted
The National Health Commission of China said they could not precisely count the total number of affected individuals in the country. For instance, the NHC said it would exclude asymptomatic individuals from their count. This week, authorities detected 2,249 symptomatic Covid-19 cases. Of this number, 20% were found in the nation’s capital.
“Many asymptomatic patients no longer participate in nucleic acid testing. As a result, it is impossible to grasp the actual number of asymptomatic infections accurately,” said the NHC.
“It’s deeply frustrating. Businesses have to close due to sick staff, even though they can legally be open. Blame is starting to flow from companies’ [foreign] headquarters to the team on the ground in China, with HQ asking, ‘Why can’t the China operations navigate these restrictions?’ All other markets have had to adjust and did so successfully,” said Noah Fraser, a managing director based in Beijing.
“It feels quite bizarre, actually. They’ve gone from 100 to zero, it seems. However, I think people are [still] concerned about catching Covid as there are fewer people out than normal, I’ve observed,” added a resident from Guangzhou.
“Some obviously miserable. Many nursing kids/parents are at home. Our’ work at home policy is now ‘work at home if you’re well enough.’ This thing came on like a runaway freight train,” explained James Zimmerman, a lawyer in Beijing.
The protest against the lockdowns
A couple of weeks ago, the citizens of China protested against the strict Covid-19 lockdowns in place. This caused the government to ease the lockdown protocols of many regions across China. People partially celebrated because of the development. However, Chinese authorities remained strict and still imposed other restrictions.
“I feel like everyone’s hard work is paying off,” said one protester.
“In our view, ending the pandemic [measures] as soon as possible is the key to the recovery in credit demand and economic growth,” said an analyst from Nomura.
“For China’s official institutions, there are no easy paths. Accelerating reopening plans when new Covid cases are rising is unlikely, given the low vaccination coverage of the elderly. But, on the other hand, mass protests would deeply tilt the scales in favor of an even weaker economy and likely be accompanied by a massive surge in Covid cases, leaving policymakers with a considerable dilemma,” added SPI Asset Management’s Innes.
“It appears that moving away from zero-Covid is pretty much a decentralized process in China: while some localities are easing restrictions, some allegedly still cling to zero-Covid, and still others are waiting and watching,” said Yanzhing Huang, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“There will be no compensations, no apologies, no discovery of the truth, just moving on. What can lock us down can also easily unlock us. How terrifying is this capricious power, and when will it overturn your life again? I don’t celebrate. I just remember those brave friends with gratitude,” said a resident in a video posted on Weibo.
A strain on the healthcare system
Nevertheless, the increase of Covid-19 patients rushed to the hospital will strain the country’s healthcare system. Beijing authorities urge citizens not to go to hospitals if they only have minor or light symptoms.
Yet, over 19,000 patients admitted to the hospital have flu-like symptoms within just six days.
“The current strains will spread faster in China than they have spread in other parts of the world. Because those other parts of the world have some immunity against infection from previous waves of earlier Omicron strains,” said Ben Cowling, an epidemiology professor from the University of Hong Kong.
“At present, the number of newly infected people in Beijing is increasing rapidly, but most of them are asymptomatic and mild cases,” said Sun Chunlan, a top Chinese official directed to manage Covid-19 in the country.