A rash of COVID-19 cases in schools and businesses were reported Friday in areas across China after the ruling Communist Party loosened anti-virus rules as it tries to reverse a deepening economic slump.
While official data showed a fall in new cases, they no longer cover large parts of the population after the government on Wednesday ended mandatory testing for many people. That was part of dramatic changes aimed at gradually emerging from “zero COVID” restrictions that have confined millions of people to their homes and sparked protests and demands for President Xi Jinping to resign.
“There’s very few people coming in because there’s so many cases,” said Gang Xueping, a waitress in a Beijing restaurant. “The country’s just opened up. The first one or two months is definitely going to be serious. Nobody’s used to this yet.”
In other cities, social media users said coworkers or classmates were ill and some businesses had closed due to a lack of staff. It wasn’t clear from those accounts, many of which couldn’t be independently confirmed, how far above the official figure the total case numbers might be.
“I’m really speechless. Half of the company’s people are out sick, but they still won’t let us all stay home,” said a post signed Tunnel Mouth on the popular Sina Weibo platform. The user gave no name and didn’t respond to questions sent through the account, which said the user was in Beijing.
The reports echo the experience of the United States, Europe and other countries that have struggled with outbreaks while trying to restore business activity. But they are a jarring change for China, where “zero COVID,” which aims to isolate every case, disrupted daily life and depressed economic activity but kept infection rates low.
Xi’s government began to loosen controls Nov. 11 after promising to reduce their cost and disruption. Imports tumbled 10.9% from a year ago in November in a sign of weak demand. Auto sales fell 26.5% in October.
“Relaxing COVID controls will lead to greater outbreaks,” Neil Thomas and Laura Gloudeman of Eurasia Group said in a report. “But Beijing is unlikely to return to the extended blanket lockdowns that crashed the economy earlier this year.”
The changes suggest the ruling party is easing off its goal of preventing virus transmission, the basis of “zero COVID,” but officials say that strategy still is in effect.
Restrictions probably must stay in place at least through mid-2023, public health experts and economists say. They say millions of elderly people need to be vaccinated, which will take months, and hospitals need to be strengthened to cope with a surge in cases. Officials announced a vaccination campaign last week.