By Reuters China’s health system has been put to the test as COVID restrictions fade

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© Reuters. People line up at a hospital’s flu clinic after the government gradually eased restrictions on the control of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on December 10, 2022. REUTERS/Martin Pollard


By Ella Gao and Ryan Wu

PADING, China (Reuters) – When Li tested positive for Covid-19 in northern China’s Pading on Tuesday, he was preparing for a five-day quarantine at a makeshift local hospital as part of the country’s strict epidemic controls.

Instead, China abruptly relaxed the policy the next day, making the world’s most populous country an outsider in a world largely learning to live with Covid.

Li, 30, who asked to be identified only by his surname, told Reuters he had been allowed to rest at home in an industrial city near the capital, Beijing.

But a sudden change of policy caught him – left on his own, with no medicine at home to cure the fever.

“I couldn’t buy any medicine at that time, there were long queues everywhere outside the pharmacies,” Li told Reuters.

Three years after the coronavirus emerged in central China, some citizens recently launched rare public protests against the zero-covid policy, which calls for economically disruptive lockdowns and mandatory quarantines in government facilities.

But Beijing’s sudden policy shift on Wednesday, cheered by some, stoked fears in a country with relatively low vaccination rates where people have been taught to fear the disease.

China’s easing of mandatory PCR testing of its 1.4 billion people has weakened the ability of health officials to quickly detect how infections are spreading, disrupting society and the economy.

Officials have not predicted how many people will become seriously ill or die since restrictions were eased. In October, China predicted at least 100 deaths for every 100,000 infections.

Lack of medicines

Padding, home to 9.2 million people, quickly drew attention on China’s Twitter-like Weibo (NASDAQ: ) for reports of people suffering from Covid-19, drawing attention to fewer medical supplies as infections surged.

Few stocks have been filled, Reuters found in a visit, and cold-relief drugs such as ibuprofen are available at many pharmacies. But Lianhua Qingwen, a popular traditional Chinese medicine used for symptoms such as fever and cough, and antigen testing kits were hard to find.

Baoding is not alone. Online pharmacies across China have run out of drugs and test kits, prompting the government to curb hoarding.

Authorities have urged households to report severe symptoms using self-administered antigen kits. But those tools are still hard to come by, and seriously ill people may not be treated immediately.

Regardless of how many people are captured in the testing numbers, “the number of infections will definitely increase” in the coming weeks, said Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. He warned that serious infections would also increase.

A health official recently said China has 138,100 hospital beds for intensive care, fewer than China’s vast population.

Mixed news

As more and more Covid patients recover at home, Bathing has also been hit by a winter heating supply crisis, which increases the risk of serious illness. The state-run Baoding Daily did not report that the heating was insufficient due to “unstable” coal supplies due to Covid.

Baoding resident Wang, 20, said the temperature in his home was just 18 degrees Celsius (64 Fahrenheit). Two members of his family are infected with covid.

“We used to joke that Padding residents don’t need heat because we can heat ourselves with our own body temperature,” he said.

Health officials agree that the elderly are particularly vulnerable and need more vaccination.

The risk of severe disease was five times higher for people over 65 than younger people, seven times more for people over 75 and nine times more for people over 85, while their risk of death was 90, 220 and 570 times higher, respectively. An official from China’s Centers for Disease Control.

But the plea for older people to better protect themselves appears to have been diluted by the simultaneous message that the omicron variant is not dangerous.

Yang, 64, avoided stockpiling. “I have no fear” about Covid, said Yang, a farmer who is fully vaccinated and has no underlying diseases.

China has reported no deaths since easing COVID restrictions, with about 5,200 deaths to date, more than 1 million in the United States.

But time will tell if the US-level death rate, or 4 million deaths in China, can be prevented.


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