Streets deserted in China’s cities as new COVID surge looms

  • People are taking measures to protect themselves after the curbs are lifted
  • A senior official predicts three waves this winter
  • Lunar New Year in January to encourage further spread

Beijing, December 18 (Reuters) – The streets of China’s major cities were eerily quiet on Sunday as people stayed at home to ward off a surge of COVID-19 cases that hit urban centers from north to south.

According to Wu Zunyou, the country’s chief epidemiologist, China is experiencing the first of three expected waves of COVID cases this winter. Further waves will come as people follow the tradition of returning en masse to their native places next month to celebrate the Lunar New Year, he said.

China has not reported a number of COVID-19 deaths since Dec. 7, when it suddenly lifted most of the restrictions necessary for its zero-tolerance policy on COVID-19 after unprecedented public protests. This strategy has been supported by President Xi Jinping.

Easing the zero-covid curb has ended mass testing for the virus, raising doubts about whether official case numbers can capture the full extent of the outbreak. December 17 China reported 2,097 new symptomatic COVID infections.

The Omicron variant, which is gaining traction in Beijing, has already affected services from catering to parcel delivery. Funeral homes and crematoriums throughout the 22 million the populous city is also struggling to keep up with demand due to staff shortages as workers and drivers call in sick.

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At Babaoshan, Beijing’s largest funeral home, which is also known for handling the bodies of China’s top officials and leaders, several hearses could be seen a minute on Sunday, and the private car park was also full.

“Currently, it is difficult to order a hearse, so many relatives transport the body in their own transport,” said the employee, who requested anonymity.

Smoke billowed from crematoria where groups of people had gathered to collect the ashes of the deceased. It was not immediately clear how much that contributed to the rise in COVID-related deaths.

Social media posts also showed empty subways in China’s northwestern city of Xi’an, while Shanghai, the country’s commercial hub, was absent from its usual New Year’s rush.

“There is a lack of festive spirit,” said a resident who gave her name as Alice.

Chengdu’s streets were deserted, but food delivery times were improving, said a resident surnamed Zhang, after services began to adjust to the recent surge in cases.

But getting antigen test kits was still difficult, she said, explaining that she had been told that the kits she had recently ordered were being diverted to hospitals.

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Shanghai authorities said schools should move most classes online from Monday, while schools in nearby Hangzhou were encouraged to end most classes early for the winter semester.

In Guangzhou, those already taking online classes, as well as preschoolers, should not prepare to return to school, the education bureau said.

At a conference in Beijing on Saturday, chief epidemiologist Wu of China’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the current outbreak would peak this winter and continue in three waves for about three months, according to a state media report of his speech.

The first wave would last from mid-December to mid-January, mostly in cities, while the second wave would start from late January to mid-February next year, triggered by the movement of people ahead of the week-long New Year holiday.

China will celebrate the Lunar New Year on January 21. During this holiday, hundreds of millions of people travel home to spend time with family.

The third wave of cases will continue from late February to mid-March, when people have returned to work after the holidays, Wu said.

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In the eastern province of Zhejiang, home to many high-tech companies and industry, the first wave is expected to peak around mid-January, though it could be earlier, health officials said at a news conference on Sunday.

“This period coincides with the Lunar New Year, and population movement will accelerate the spread of the epidemic,” said Chen Zhong, deputy executive director of the provincial epidemic control task force.

A US-based research institute said this week that cases in the country could rise and more than a million people in China could die from COVID-19 in 2023.

Wu said severe cases have decreased compared to last year and vaccination has provided some level of protection. He said the vulnerable should be protected and recommended booster vaccinations for the general public.

Although China introduced its first COVID vaccines in 2021, vaccination rates for people 60 and older have remained largely unchanged since the summer, according to official data.

Only 66.4% of people over the age of 80 have completed the full vaccination course, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Reporting by Siyi Liu, Dominique Patton, Ryan Woo, Eduardo Baptista and Brenda Goh; Edited by Kenneth Maxwell and Philippa Fletcher

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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