BEIJING (AP) — A week after China eased some of the world's strictest COVID-19 containment measures, uncertainty remains over the direction of the pandemic in the world's most populous nation.
While there are no indications of the massive case surge some had feared, the government says it is now essentially impossible to get an accurate picture of the actual numbers nationwide.
In Beijing and elsewhere, pharmacies are running out of medications and testing kits and many hospital staff are staying home.
Downtown Beijing was largely empty on Thursday and those businesses and restaurants that remained open or had not cut back radically on operating hours saw few customers.
Some lines formed outside pharmacies and fever clinics — the number of which has more than tripled in Beijing to over 300 despite government appeals for those with mild symptoms to recuperate at home without taxing health resources.
China’s “zero-COVID” policy of lockdowns, quarantines and mandatory testing was blamed for throttling the economy and creating massive societal stress, and the effect of the Dec. 7 relaxation of measures has yet to come into focus.
Elsewhere in the economy, the news has been mixed. The National Bureau of Statistics on Thursday said China’s value-added industrial output rose a modest 2.2% year-on-year.
“The industrial output remained stable in November despite the short-term impact of the pandemic,” bureau official Tang Weiwei was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.
China’s urban unemployment rate rose slightly to 5.7% in November, from 5.5% the month before, the NBS said. China does not survey unemployment outside of major cities.
While cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have invested heavily in healthcare, second- and third-tier cities and communities in the vast rural hinterland have far fewer resources to deal with a major outbreak.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Yale professor of public health Xi Chen said that strains rose partly from the lack of a family doctor system, making people more reliant on hospitals.
“If people do not have such culture to stay at home, to keep those resources for sicker people, then that could easily crash the system,” Chen said.
Persuading older adults to get vaccinated for their third dose is also a major “bottleneck" at present, while the January Lunar New Year travel rush is expected to present another challenge, Chen said.
“I’m concerned it could be a super-spreader event," he said.
Chen faulted the ruling Communist Party for waiting until the onset of cold and flu season in winter to begin lifting the restrictions.
The task of gauging China's preparedness is made all the harder by the lack of reliable statistics and projections.
The only numbers the National Health Commission is currently reporting are confirmed cases detected in public testing facilities where symptoms are displayed. Many people also test at home, and any positive results there would also not be captured.
While China claimed zero COVID was superior in keeping numbers of cases and deaths far lower than other nations, those government-supplied figures have not been independently verified, and questions have been raised about whether the ruling party has sought to minimize the impact.
China has recorded just 5,235 deaths — compared with 1.1 million in the United States. However, China has traditionally given higher priority to contributing conditions such as heart disease in determining whether a person died of COVID-19 or not.
President Xi Jinping’s government is still officially committed to stopping virus transmission. But the latest moves suggest the party will tolerate more cases without quarantines or shutting down travel or businesses.
Starting Tuesday, China also stopped tracking some travel, though China’s international borders remain largely shut.
The easing of measures came after Beijing and several other cities saw protests over the measures that grew into calls for Xi and the Communist Party to step down — a level of public dissent not seen in decades.
China has also been struggling to fill gaps, especially among the elderly, in its vaccination regime, which relies on domestically developed inactivated vaccines rather than the more effective Western COVID-19 vaccines based on mRNA technology. Chinese officials have so far ignored calls for them to import the foreign jabs.
According to authorities, 86.6% of people aged 60 or over have received at least two shots. On Wednesday, the government said it would offer a second booster shot to those in vulnerable groups who had received their first booster more than six months ago. Inhalable COVID-19 vaccines that do not require a syringe to be administered are also being offered in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.