Chinese cities grapple with rapid spread of Covid

Covid-19 is spreading rapidly through China’s biggest cities, leading to widespread medicine shortages and exposing Beijing’s lack of preparation after authorities reversed strict pandemic controls.

Residents of Shanghai, Shenzhen and other cities reported pharmacies have sold out of fever medicine and Covid tests, while social media images contrast long queues outside Covid clinics with otherwise empty streets.

The outbreak has brought normal life to a halt just a few weeks after Beijing abandoned zero-Covid controls — which included lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing — with little forewarning. In many cities, residents were sick or staying at home to avoid infections. Shanghai and several other cities announced they would move classes online for most students starting Monday.

In Shanghai, Lindsay Feng, a tech worker, noted eight of 21 neighbours in her apartment complex had contracted Covid in the past 10 days. “My high fever is gone, but I’m swallowing razor blades now,” said Feng, who tested positive at home on Saturday.

In the southern city of Shenzhen, a pharmacy owner said his store had run out of cold and fever medicine. “I have been asking for supplies for two weeks, but the factories are still postponing my orders,” he said, adding he planned to pick up any supply himself when it became available. “There are no drivers . . . they are all testing positive.”

Ivy, a college student in nearby Guangzhou, said her classmates had got fevers one after another in recent days, though some of them could not ascertain whether they were Covid symptoms because home tests were not readily available. While an online hospital set up by the city still had medicine, Ivy said, it was running out of healthy workers to deliver them.

There is a dearth of reliable data on the scale and speed of the outbreak after Chinese authorities curtailed Covid testing and stopped reporting what they deemed asymptomatic cases. The country reported only 2,028 new locally transmitted cases on Saturday.

An amateur statistician known as Chenqin, who has analysed online search trends, estimates there were close to 40mn new Covid cases on Friday.

The estimates suggest 29 per cent of the city of Chongqing, 16 per cent of Guangzhou and 11 per cent of Shanghai have been infected. They also indicate a few cities including Beijing and neighbouring Shijiazhuang have passed the peak of their first Covid waves and daily infections have begun to decline.

The estimation methodology has not been validated by experts or the Financial Times but has gained attention online in China in the absence of official numbers.

In Shijiazhuang, the capital of northern Hebei province, resident Xue Zhikun said many people had begun venturing outside again after recovering from the virus. “But it’s not yet totally [back to normal],” he said.

Meanwhile, economic policymakers in Beijing have begun to look beyond the immediate health crisis and focus on stabilising the country’s battered economy. Officials on Friday concluded the Central Economic Work Conference, an annual agenda-setting meeting for economic policies in the year ahead.

The gathering vowed to bolster the economy in 2023 and sought to inspire confidence by praising the importance of the private sector, including real estate and internet companies.

Han Wenxiu, an official at the Communist party’s Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission, said the government would continue to roll out growth support policies at a forum on Saturday, while a top central bank official said they would add stimulus if needed.

“The tone setting is important,” said Wang Qi, chief executive at fund manager MegaTrust Investment in Hong Kong. “China’s refocus on economic growth injects confidence into the market, which will likely respond positively on Monday.”

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