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China faces surge in infections as retreat from ‘zero-Covid’ turns chaotic

China is racing to vaccinate its most vulnerable people in anticipation of waves of Covid-19 infections, with some analysts expecting the death toll to soar after the country eased strict controls that kept the pandemic at bay for three years.

The push comes as the World Health Organization also raised concerns that China’s 1.4 billion population was not adequately vaccinated, and the United States offered to help China deal with a surge in infections.

Beijing has begun dismantling its rigid ‘zero-Covid’ controls, dropping testing requirements and easing quarantine rules that had caused mental anxiety for tens of millions and battered the world’s second-largest economy.

The pivot away from China’s zero-Covid policy followed unprecedented widespread protests against it. But WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said infections were exploding well before the government decided to phase out its stringent regime.

“There’s a narrative at the moment that China lifted the restrictions, and all of a sudden, the disease is out of control,” Ryan told a briefing in Geneva.

“The disease was spreading intensively because I believe the control measures in themselves were not stopping the disease.”

There are increasing signs of chaos during China’s change of tack – with long queues outside fever clinics, runs on medicines, and panic buying across the country.

One video posted online on Wednesday showed several people, wearing thick winter clothes, hooked up to intravenous drips as they sat on stools on the street outside a clinic in central Hubei province. Reuters verified the location of the video.

For all its efforts to quell the virus since it erupted in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019, China may now pay the price for shielding a population that lacks “herd immunity” and has low vaccination rates among the elderly, analysts say.

“Authorities have let cases in Beijing and other cities spread to the point where resuming restrictions, testing, and tracing would be largely ineffective in bringing outbreaks under control,” analysts at Eurasia Group said in a note on Thursday.

“Upward of 1 million people could die from Covid in the coming months.”

Other experts have put the likely toll at more than 2 million. However, China has reported just 5,235 Covid-related deaths so far, which is extremely low by global standards.

China’s equity markets and its yuan currency fell on Thursday amid concerns about the virus’s spread.

China reported 2,000 new symptomatic Covid-19 infections for December 14, compared with 2,291 daily. It also stopped reporting asymptomatic figures on Wednesday.

Tracking Covid cases now ‘impossible’ as infections soar: China

Concern for elderly

China, which has said around 90 percent of its population is vaccinated, has announced it would roll out the second vaccine booster shots for high-risk groups and elderly people over 60.

According to comments reported by state media, National Health Commission spokesperson Mi Feng said it was necessary to accelerate the promotion of vaccinations.

The latest official data shows China administered 1.43 million Covid shots on Tuesday, well above rates in November of around 100,000 – 200,000 doses a day. In total, it has administered 3.45 billion shots.

But citing low elderly vaccination rates, one Shanghai care home said it was barring visitors and non-essential deliveries and stockpiling medicines, tests kits, and protective gear.

“We are racking our brains on how to ensure the safety of your grandparents,” the Yuepu Tianyi Nursing Home wrote in a letter posted on its official WeChat account page.

Beijing has been largely resistant to western vaccines and treatments, relying on locally-made shots.

Pfizer’s oral Covid-19 treatment Paxlovid is one of the few foreign ones it has approved.

The treatment, however, has only been available in hospitals for high-risk patients, but signs have appeared in recent days that it may soon be more widely available. China Meheco Group Co Ltd’s stock jumped after it announced a deal to import the U.S. drugmaker’s treatment on Wednesday.

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