China’s workers return to office as cities live with COVID

Commuters in Beijing and Shanghai are crowding roads and public transport as cities move past tough ‘zero-COVID’ policy.

Beijing CBD
Beijing and Shanghai are getting busier as people adjust to living with COVID-19 [File: Jason Lee/Reuters]

Mask-wearing Beijing and Shanghai commuters are crowding subway trains, with China’s two biggest cities moving closer to living with COVID-19, as millions have been infected with the virus across the country.

After years of ruthless anti-coronavirus curbs, President Xi Jinping scrapped the country’s zero-COVID policy in the face of protests and a widening outbreak.

But after the initial shock of the policy U-turn, and a few weeks in which people in Beijing and Shanghai stayed indoors, either dealing with the disease or trying to avoid it, there are signs that life is on course to returning closer to normal.

Subway trains in Beijing and Shanghai were packed on Monday, while some major traffic arteries in the two cities jammed with slow-moving cars as residents commuted to work.

Commuters ride a subway train during the morning rush hour in Beijing [Josh Arslan/Reuters]

An annual Christmas market held at the Bund, a commercial area in Shanghai, was also crowded over the weekend. Crowds thronged the winter festive season at Shanghai Disneyland and Beijing’s Universal Studios on Sunday, queueing up for rides in Christmas-themed outfits.

The number of trips to scenic spots in the southern city of Guangzhou this weekend increased by 132 percent from last weekend, local newspaper The 21st Century Business Herald reported.

China is the last big country to move towards treating COVID as endemic. Its containment measures had slowed the $17 trillion economy to its lowest growth rate in nearly half a century, disrupting global supply chains and trade.

The economy is expected to suffer further in the short term, as the COVID wave spreads towards manufacturing areas and workforces fall ill, before bouncing back next year, analysts say.

Tesla suspended production at its Shanghai plant on Saturday, bringing ahead a plan to pause most work at the plant in the last week of December. The company did not give a reason.

Despite a record surge of cases nationwide, China reported no COVID deaths on the mainland for the six days through Sunday, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said on Sunday, even as crematories faced surging demand.

China has narrowed its definition for classifying deaths as COVID-related, counting only those involving COVID-caused pneumonia or respiratory failure, raising eyebrows among world health experts.

Huaian, Jiangsu province, China
A medical worker provides instructions to a resident at a mobile fever clinic in Huaian, Jiangsu province [CNSPhoto via Reuters]

The country’s healthcare system has been under enormous strain, with staff being asked to work while sick and retired medical workers in rural communities being rehired to help, according to state media.

The provincial government of Zhejiang, a big industrial province near Shanghai with a population of 65.4 million, said on Sunday it was battling about a million new daily COVID-19 infections, a number expected to double in the days ahead.

Health authorities in the southeastern Jiangxi province have said infections would hit an apex in early January, adding that there could be other peaks as people travel next month for Lunar New Year celebrations, state media reported.

They warned that the wave of infections would last three months and that about 80 percent of the province’s 45 million residents could get infected.

The city of Qingdao, in the eastern Shandong province, has estimated that up to 530,000 residents were infected daily.

Cities across China have been racing to add intensive care units and fever clinics, which are designed to prevent the spread of contagious diseases in hospitals.

Health workers carry a person to the hospital in Shanghai [Alex Plavevski/EPA]

The Beijing municipal government has said the number of fever clinics in the city had increased from 94 to almost 1,300, state media said. Shanghai has 2,600 such clinics and has transferred doctors from less-strained medical departments to help out.

Worries remain about the ability of less-affluent cities in China to cope with a surge in severe infections, especially as hundreds of millions of rural migrant workers are expected to return to their families for the Lunar New Year.

Source: Reuters