China is racing to strengthen its health system as the rise of COVID raises global concerns

  • Authorities rush to add hospital beds, build fever clinics
  • US raises concerns about the possibility of COVID mutations
  • On Tuesday, Beijing reported five more deaths
  • Increased security measures in crematoriums amid doubts about the number of dead

BEIJING/SINGAPORE, Dec 20 (Reuters) – Cities across China scrambled on Tuesday to install hospital beds and build fever screening clinics after authorities reported five more deaths and international concern grew over Beijing’s surprise decision to let the virus spread freely.

This month, China began dismantling its strict “zero COVID” lockdown and testing regime after protests against restrictions that kept the virus at bay for three years but at great cost to society and the world’s second-largest economy.

Now, as the virus sweeps a country of 1.4 billion people who lack natural immunity because they have been protected for so long, concerns are growing about possible deaths, virus mutations and the impact on the economy and trade.

“Any new epidemic wave in another country carries the risk of new variants, and that risk is higher the larger the epidemic, and the current wave in China is shaping up to be a large one,” said Alex Cook, associate dean for research at The Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.

“Inevitably, however, China must go through a major wave of COVID-19 if it is to reach an endemic state in the future without lockdowns and the economic and political damage that results.”

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday that the potential for the virus to mutate as it spreads in China is “a threat to people everywhere.”

Beijing reported five COVID-related deaths on Tuesday, following two on Monday, which were the first deaths reported in weeks. In total, China has reported only 5,242 deaths from COVID since the pandemic emerged in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019, a very low toll by global standards.

But there are growing doubts that the statistics reflect the true impact of the disease, which has been tearing through cities since China lifted restrictions, including most mandatory testing, on December 7.

Since then, some hospitals have flooded, pharmacies have run out of medicine, while many people have closed on their own, straining delivery services.

“It is a bit of a burden to suddenly reopen when the supply of medicine has not been sufficiently prepared,” said Zhang, a 31-year-old service provider in Beijing, who declined to give his full name. “But I support reopening.”

Some health experts estimate that 60% of people in China – equivalent to 10% of the world’s population – could be infected in the coming months and that more than 2 million could die.

In the capital Beijing, guards patrolled the entrance to a designated COVID-19 crematorium, where Reuters reporters on Saturday saw a long line of hearses and workers in protective suits carrying the dead inside. Reuters could not determine whether the deaths were due to COVID.

‘I’M GETTING SICK’

In Beijing, which has become the main hotspot of the infection, commuters, many coughing into their masks, returned to trains to work and the streets came alive after being largely deserted last week.

Streets in Shanghai, where levels of COVID transmission are catching up to those in Beijing, were emptier and subway trains were only half full.

“People stay away because they’re sick or they’re afraid of getting sick, but mostly now I think it’s because they’re actually sick,” said Yang, a trainer in an almost empty gym in Shanghai.

Senior health officials have softened their tone on the threat posed by the disease in recent weeks, a reversal from earlier reports that the virus must be eradicated to save lives even as the rest of the world opens up.

They also downplayed the possibility that the now predominant Omicron strain would become more virulent.

“The probability of a sudden major mutation … is very low,” Zhang Wenhong, a prominent infectious disease specialist, told a forum on Sunday in comments carried by state media.

However, there are growing signs that the virus is taking its toll on China’s fragile health system.

Cities are stepping up efforts to expand intensive care units and build fever clinics, facilities designed to prevent the wider spread of infectious diseases in hospitals.

In the past week, major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Wenzhou announced they had added hundreds of fever clinics, some in converted sports facilities.

The virus is also hitting China’s economy, which is expected to grow by 3% this year, its worst performance in nearly half a century. Sick workers and truck drivers are slowing production and disrupting logistics, economists say.

A survey by World Economics showed on Monday that business confidence in China fell in December to its lowest level since January 2013.

Weaker industrial activity in the world’s biggest oil importer capped gains in crude prices and sent copper lower.

China kept benchmark lending rates unchanged for a fourth consecutive month on Tuesday.

Reporting by Bernard Orr and Xiaoyu Yin in Beijing, Xinghui Kok in Singapore, David Stanway and Casey Hall in Shanghai and Humeira Pamuk in Washington; Written by John Geddy and Marius Zacharias; Editing by Robert Birsell

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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