China’s coronavirus outbreak grows amid concerns over vulnerable elderly
As of Tuesday, at least 28 of the country’s 31 provinces and regions had reported new cases of the coronavirus, mostly of the BA.2 version of the omicron variant. More than half of the new cases have been in the country’s northeast Jilin province, where authorities said they had enough medical supplies for just two or three more days.
China is particularly vulnerable to the fast-spreading omicron variant. Although more than 85% of the population is vaccinated, Chinese vaccines have not been shown to be as effective against the variant, compared to mRNA vaccines – such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna – used elsewhere, which are still in production and not yet available. in the countryside.
China’s large elderly population is particularly at risk. More than 50 million people in the country over the age of 60 are not fully vaccinated, according to a National Health Commission briefing on Tuesday, raising concerns that if the outbreak is not controlled, China could suffer the same fate as neighboring Hong Kong where more than 4,500 have died – the vast majority of elderly people who were not fully vaccinated.
Lockdown measures in major manufacturing hubs and ports such as Shanghai, Shenzhen and Dongguan also threaten to hurt global supply chains and China’s economic recovery after top officials pledged to drive growth to about 5.5% this year.
On Tuesday, the country’s economic czar, Liu He, warned that in the “complex situation”, pandemic measures must be balanced with economic and social development to “keep the economy functioning within a reasonable range” and the maintenance stable capital markets – a possible reference to how the draconian containment measures previously used could affect the economy.
A Bank of America Securities report said the outbreak could hit global supply chains for Android smartphones and affect the production of chips, clothing and cars in the near term. Although most Chinese ports remain open, shipping analysts have documented congestion with dozens of containers waiting outside the ports of Qingdao and Shenzhen while US electric car maker Tesla said in a note that it was suspending production at its Shanghai factory for two days, according to Reuters.
The outbreak coincided with a sell-off in Chinese stocks this week, followed by a rebound on Wednesday after Liu pledged to support industries under pressure.
Complaints from ordinary citizens have appeared with more regularity on the country’s heavily-watched social media platforms. A user wrote on the Weibo microblog on Monday that due to the sudden new lockdown measures, his family was stuck on a highway for 14 hours trying to reach Wuxi city in eastern China.
The news that a 4-year-old girl in Changchun, one of the cities under strict lockdown, had died of acute laryngitis while waiting for a negative coronavirus test to go to hospital has sparked further anger in line.
“Three years. I don’t dare get sick and I’m not even talking about having kids. You don’t know what they might be facing,” one netizen wrote under a hashtag for the issue that was seen more 40 million times in two hours.
Others have complained about losses suffered by their businesses. “I really fell in love tonight and I have never wanted to leave Shenzhen so much as tonight. Since I opened my shop on March 1, I haven’t earned a single penny,” one comment read widely. accessed in response to a post on WeChat by the Shenzhen Health Commission.
As the shutdowns weigh on the economy and test the patience of residents, there are signs that officials may be gradually moving away from the “zero covid momentum” policy of trying to eliminate the virus by strict closures, aggressive contact tracing and the maintenance of strict border controls.
Patients with mild symptoms no longer need to be hospitalized but instead are sent to centralized quarantine centers, officials said on Tuesday. Officials in Shanghai, where schools have been closed, have said they do not plan to institute a citywide lockdown.
Apple supplier Foxconn, which halted operations in Shenzhen on Monday, said on Wednesday it had implemented a “closed-loop” system and resumed some production. Yantian Port in Shenzhen said on Monday it was still operating normally.
But many provinces and cities are still applying controls as strict as before. Nearly 36 million people in cities and towns from Hebei Province to Shenzhen have been confined to their homes or apartment complexes. Key industrial hubs such as Dongguan, Changchun, Jilin City and Shenzhen have placed their residents under “closed management”, forcing businesses and factories to suspend operations.
Many other regions have implemented less stringent restrictions on travel between provinces. Flights to Shanghai will be diverted to other cities from March 21 to May 1. Everyone entering Beijing must undergo a nucleic acid test (PCR) 72 hours after arrival, in addition to having tested negative for coronavirus within the last 48 hours.
In Tianjin, as in many cities, residents have been ordered not to leave for non-essential travel. In Shanghai, those who need to leave the city, as well as those entering the city, must present a negative nucleic acid test taken within the last 48 hours.
Despite signs of wavering, China has officially promised to continue its zero covid policy. Lei Zhenglong, deputy head of the National Health Commission’s Disease Prevention and Control Office, said in an interview with Xinhua News Agency published on Wednesday that experts judged the current zero covid policy to be effective. against the omicron variant, although the BA.2 version spread faster and undetected. He said the nature of the current outbreak demands that “our prevention and control measures be earlier, faster, stricter and more effective.”
Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.