BEIJING (AP) – A spate of COVID-19 cases were reported in schools and businesses on Friday in regions across China after the ruling Communist Party relaxed anti-virus rules. As it tries to reverse a deepening economic recession.
While official data showed a decline in new cases, it no longer covered large parts of the population after the government on Wednesday ended mandatory testing for many people. It was part of sweeping changes aimed at gradually emerging from “zero COVID” restrictions. This led to the confinement of millions of people in their homes and sparked protests and calls for the resignation of President Xi Jinping.
“There are very few people coming because there are too many cases,” said Zhang Zuibing, a waitress at a Beijing restaurant. “The country has just opened up. The first month or two will definitely be dangerous. No one is used to this yet.”
In other cities, social media users said co-workers or classmates were sick and some businesses closed due to staff shortages. It was not clear from those accounts, many of which could not be independently confirmed, how much higher the total number of cases might be than the official number.
Half of the company’s employees have been discharged sick, but they still don’t let all of us stay at home,” said a post signed by Tunnel Mouth on popular platform Sina Weibo. Questions sent through the account, which said the user is in Beijing.
The reports echo the experience of the United States, Europe and other countries that have suffered outbreaks while trying to restore business. But they represent a stark change for China, where “Zero COVID”, which aims to isolate every case, has disrupted daily life and depressed economic activity but kept infection rates down.
Xi’s government began easing restrictions on November 11 after promising to cut costs and disruption. Imports fell 10.9% from a year ago in November in a sign of weaker demand. Auto sales fell 26.5% in October.
“A relaxation of COVID controls will lead to a larger outbreak of the disease,” Neil Thomas and Laura Glodman of the Eurasia Group said in a report. “But Beijing is unlikely to return to the sweeping lockdowns that brought the economy into a tailspin earlier this year.”
The changes suggest the ruling party is softening its goal of preventing transmission of the virus, the basis for “zero COVID,” but officials say the strategy remains in place.
Public health experts and economists say the restrictions probably should remain in place at least until mid-2023. Millions of seniors need to be vaccinated, they say, which will take months, and hospitals need to be beefed up to deal with the 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 down about a fifth from the previous day and less than half of last week’s daily peak above 40,000.
More changes were announced on Wednesday Allowing people with mild cases of COVID-19 to isolate at home instead of going to a quarantine center which some have complained is overcrowded and unsanitary. Address that is a major irritant to the audience.
A requirement for subway riders, supermarket shoppers and others to test negative for the virus has also been scrapped, although it is still required for schools and hospitals.
A post from Where Dreams Begin Under the Stars by a user in Dazhou, a city in the southwest in Sichuan Province, said that 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, who was contacted through the account, refused to give a name or other details.
Requiring that hundreds of millions of people be tested once a day in some areas over the past two years has helped the government catch infections without symptoms. Ending this approach reduces the cost of monitoring employees and customers in offices, stores and other businesses. But it increases the risk of spreading the virus.
The changes introduced this week follow protests that broke out on November 25 in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities against the human cost of “Zero COVID”.
It is not clear if any of the changes were in response to the protests, which died after a security crackdown.
The ruling party’s politburo declared on Wednesday that stabilizing weak economic growth was a priority, though leaders said local officials were still expected to protect the public.
“The refocus on growth and exit from zero COVID are clear from the top level,” Larry Ho and Yuexiao Zhang of Macquarie Group, an Australian bank, said in a report. However, they warned that “uncertainty remains high,” including “how disruptive the exit from zero COVID could be.”
Party leaders stopped talking about the official annual growth target of 5.5% after the economy contracted 2.6% from the previous quarter in the three months ending in June. This was after Shanghai and other industrial centers were closed for up to two months to combat the outbreak.
Private economists cut their forecasts for annual growth to less than 3%, which would be less than half of last year’s 8.1% and among the weakest in decades.
Posts on social media indicated that some cities may have outbreaks that were not reflected in the official numbers.
Postings dated Thursday from 18 people who said they were in Baoding, a city of 11 million southwest of Beijing, said they had tested positive with household items or had a fever, sore throat and headache. Meanwhile, the Baoding city government has not reported any new cases since Tuesday.
Drug stores have been attacked by customers who bought medicines for sore throats and headaches after rules requiring pharmacists to report such purchases were dropped, prompting fears that a customer might have to quarantine.
Also on Friday, the market regulator announced that prices of some medicines including Lianhua Qingwen, a traditional flu remedy, had risen by up to 500% over the past month. It said sellers could be penalized for price gouging.
Lines formed outside hospitals, though it wasn’t clear how many people wanted treatment for COVID-19 symptoms.
People waited four to five hours to get to the fever clinic at Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing, according to a woman who answered the phone there and gave only her last name, Sun. No virus test was required, she said, but patients had to show a “health code” app on a smartphone that tracks vaccine status and whether they’ve been to areas deemed to be at risk.
Hong Kong, which is implementing its own anti-virus strategy, has faced a similar rise in cases as the southern Chinese city tries to revive its ailing economy by easing restrictions on travel and the opening hours of restaurants and bars.
Hong Kong reported 75,000 new cases over the past week, up about 25% from the previous week. But those do not include the unknown number of people who stay home with symptoms of COVID-19 and never report it to the government.
Associated Press news assistant in Guangzhou, China, researcher Yu Ping in Beijing, and Associated Press writers Canice Leung in Hong Kong and Dak Kang in Beijing contributed to this report.
“Lifelong food lover. Avid beeraholic. Zombie fanatic. Passionate travel practitioner.”