Beijing (CNN) Empty streets, deserted shopping malls and residents keeping their distance from each other are the new normal in Beijing, but not because the city, like many Chinese before it, is in lockdown due to “zero covid” policy restrictions. “.
This time it is because Beijing has been hit by a major spreading outbreak, the first to hit the Chinese capital since the start of the pandemic, a week after leaders eased the restrictive “zero covid” policy. ” from the country.
The impact of the outbreak on the city was visible on Tuesday in the upscale Sanlitun shopping district. There, normally bustling shops and restaurants were left empty of customers and, in some cases, operating with very few staff or only offering takeout.
Similar scenes are playing out in Beijing, where offices, stores and residential communities are reporting staff shortages or changes in work organization as employees fall ill from the virus. Meanwhile, others are staying at home to avoid catching the virus.
A community worker told CNN that 21 of the 24 workers at the office of her Beijing neighborhood committee, which is tasked with coordinating residential affairs and activities, have fallen ill in recent days.
“Since our superiors are mostly infected, they don’t give us much work,” said the employee, Sylvia Sun.
“(The usual) events, conferences, performances, activities for parents and children will definitely not take place.”
Already suffering from a small-scale outbreak before the new rules, Beijing now finds itself on the front lines of a new reality for China: Chinese cities have not faced an outbreak since the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan. without strong control measures being applied.
But for a place that assiduously tracked all cases until earlier this month, there is now no clear data on the extent of the virus’s spread. China’s new covid rules have significantly eased testing requirements that once dominated daily life, with residents switching to using home antigen tests where available, making official figures unreliable.
“Impossible to calculate”
On Wednesday, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) stopped tracking all new covid cases and announced that it would no longer include asymptomatic infections in its daily count.
It had previously reported these cases, albeit in a separate category of “confirmed” or symptomatic.
“It is impossible to accurately estimate the actual number of asymptomatic infections,” the NHC said in a statement, citing low levels of official testing.
The authorities reported this Wednesday morning 2,249 symptomatic cases of covid throughout the country during the previous day, of which 20% were detected in the capital. These figures are also believed to have been affected by reduced testing. CNN reports from Beijing indicate that the total number of cases in the Chinese capital could be several times higher than registered.
In a message posted on Twitter, Beijing-based lawyer James Zimmerman, former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said about 90% of his office employees have covid, up from half a few days ago. .
“Our ‘work at home’ policy is now ‘work at home if you’re okay.’ This has come like a runaway freight train,” she wrote on Wednesday.
Experts have stated that the relatively low number of patients previously infected with COVID-19 in China and the lower efficacy of its widely used inactivated virus vaccines against omicron infection, compared with earlier strains and mRNA vaccines, could facilitate the rapid spread of the virus.
“The current strains will spread faster in China than in other parts of the world, because those other parts of the world have some immunity against infection by previous waves of previous omicron strains,” said Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong. Kong.
The spread of serious illness or death in Covid-19 outbreaks is usually slow, but there are signs of its impact on the health system: Beijing authorities urge patients who are not seriously ill not to go to hospitals. emergency services.
The city’s main hospitals registered 19,000 patients with flu symptoms between December 5 and 11, more than six times the previous week, a health official said Monday.
The number of patients attending fever clinics was 16 times higher on Sunday than the previous week. In China, where there is no strong primary care system, it is common to go to the hospital for minor illnesses.
However, there were only 50 serious and critical cases in hospitals so far, most of which had underlying health problems, Sun Chunlan, China’s senior official in charge of covid management, said during an inspection of the response to the epidemic in Beijing this Tuesday. .
“Currently, the number of newly infected in Beijing is increasing rapidly, but most are mild and asymptomatic cases,” Sun said, also calling for more fever clinics to be established, adding that the supply of medicines was being increased, which have been affected by an increase in purchases in recent days.
Leading Shanghai doctor Zhang Wenhong has warned that hospitals must do everything possible to ensure that health workers do not become infected as quickly as the population in the communities they serve. Such a situation could lead to a shortage of medical staff and infections among patients, he said, according to local media reports.
Concern over scarcity and access to medicines and healthcare has been palpable in public debate, including on social media. There, a Beijing reporter’s account of her stay in a temporary hospital to receive treatment for covid-19 sparked a storm on social media, with a related hashtag garnering more than 93 million views on the Chinese platform Weibo, similar to Twitter, from Monday.
Social media users wondered why the reporter, who showed off her two-bed room and access to fever medicine in a video interview released by her employer, Beijing TV and Radio Station, on Sunday, received that treatment while others had a hard time.
“Impressive! A young reporter gets space in a temporary hospital and carries liquid ibuprofen for children that is hard for parents to find in Beijing,” read one sarcastic comment, which garnered thousands of likes.
Another popular response complained that “ordinary people” stay at home with children and the elderly with high fevers. “Could you give me (your) bed if I call (the hospital)?” asked the Weibo user.
Fearing the virus, residents rushed to buy canned peaches, following rumors that the vitamin C-packed fruit could prevent or treat covid. Since then, Chinese state media have warned people that the preserved fruit is not a remedy against covid or a substitute for medicine.