- In Wuhan, surge in new cases shows signs of easing
- Shanghai has 10 million infections, health official says
- End of zero-COVID curbs prompts global concern
WUHAN/BEIJING, Dec 31 (Reuters) – New Year’s Eve in China prompted an outpouring of reflection online and by residents of Wuhan, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak nearly three years ago, about the strict zero-COVID policy and the impact of its abrupt reversal this month.
The policy switch has led to a wave of infections across the country, a further drop in economic activity and international concern, with Britain and France becoming the latest countries to impose curbs on travellers from China.
China’s decision to abandon the zero-COVID policy aligned it with a world that has largely reopened to live with COVID-19.
The step followed unprecedented protests over the policy championed by President Xi Jinping, marking the strongest show of public defiance in his decade-old presidency and coinciding with grim growth figures for China’s $17 trillion economy.
On Saturday, people in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak first emerged in late 2019, expressed hope that normal life would return in 2023 despite a surge in cases since pandemic curbs were lifted.
City resident Chen Mei, 45, said she hoped her teenage daughter would see no further disruptions to her schooling.
“When she can’t go to the school and can only have classes online it’s definitely not an effective way of learning,” she said.
VIRAL VIDEO REMOVED
Across the country, many people took to social media to voice similar hopes, while others were critical.
Thousands of users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo criticised the removal of a viral video made by local outlet Netease News that collated real-life stories from 2022 that had captivated the Chinese public.
Many of the stories included in the video, which by Saturday could not be seen or shared on domestic social media platforms, highlighted the difficulties ordinary Chinese faced as a result of the strict COVID policy.
Weibo and Netease did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
One Weibo hashtag about the video garnered almost 4 million hits before it disappeared from platforms at about noon on Saturday. Social media users created new hashtags to keep the comments pouring in.
“What a perverse world, you can only sing the praises of the fake but you cannot show real life,” one user wrote, attaching a screenshot of a blank page that is displayed when searching for the hashtags.
The disappearance of the videos and hashtags, seen by many as an act of censorship, suggests the Chinese government still sees the narrative surrounding its handling of the disease as a politically sensitive issue.
The wave of new infections has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes across the country, with lines of hearses outside crematoriums fuelling public concern.
China, a country of 1.4 billion people, reported one new COVID death for Friday, the same as the day before – numbers which do not match the experience of other countries after they reopened.
UK-based health data firm Airfinity said on Thursday about 9,000 people in China were probably dying each day from COVID. Cumulative deaths in China since Dec. 1 have likely reached 100,000, with infections totalling 18.6 million, it said.
Zhang Wenhong, director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, told the People’s Daily in an interview published on Saturday that Shanghai had reached a peak of infections on Dec. 22, saying there were currently about 10 million cases.
He said those numbers indicated that some 50,000 people in the city of 25 million would need to be hospitalized in the next few weeks.
At the central hospital of Wuhan, where former COVID whistleblower Li Wenliang worked and later died of the virus in early 2020, patient numbers were down on Saturday compared with the rush of the past few weeks, a worker outside the hospital’s fever clinic told Reuters.
“This wave is almost over,” said the worker, who was wearing a hazmat suit.
A pharmacist whose store is next to the hospital said most people in the city had now been infected and recovered.
“It is mainly old people who are getting sick with it now,” he said.
NEW YEAR, NEW CHALLENGES
In the first indication of the toll on China’s giant manufacturing sector from the change in COVID policy, data on Saturday showed factory activity shrank for the third straight month in December and at the sharpest pace in nearly three years.
Besides the growing economic toll, rising infections after the lifting of the restrictions have drawn international concern, particularly regarding the possibility of a new, stronger variant emerging out of China.
Britain and France joined other countries in requiring travellers from China to provide negative COVID tests. The United States, South Korea, India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan have all imposed similar measures.
The World Health Organization on Friday once again urged China’s health officials to regularly share specific and real-time information on the COVID situation in the country, as it continues to assess the latest surge in cases.
Reporting by Martin Quinn Pollard, Tingshu Wang and Xiaoyu Yin in Wuhan, Eduardo Baptista in Beijing; Writing by Sumeet Chatterjee; Editing by Neil Fullick, Kim Coghill and Helen Popper
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