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China Struggles With COVID Infections  12/09 06:10


   BEIJING (AP) -- A rash of COVID-19 cases in schools and businesses were 
reported by social media users Friday in areas across China after the ruling 
Communist Party loosened anti-virus rules as it tries to reverse a deepening 
economic slump.

   Official data showed a fall in new cases, but those no longer cover big 
parts of the population after the government on Wednesday ended mandatory 
testing for many people. That was part of dramatic changes aimed at gradually 
emerging from "zero-COVID" restrictions that have confined millions of people 
to their homes and sparked protests and demands for President Xi Jinping to 

   Social media users in Beijing and other cities said coworkers or classmates 
were ill and some businesses closed due to lack of staff. It wasn't clear from 
those accounts, many of which couldn't be independently confirmed, how far 
above the official figure the total case numbers might be.

   "I'm really speechless. Half of the company's people are out sick, but they 
still won't let us all stay home," said a post signed Tunnel Mouth on the 
popular Sina Weibo platform. The user gave no name and didn't respond to 
questions sent through the account, which said the user was in Beijing.

   The reports echo the experience of the United States, Europe and other 
economies that have struggled with outbreaks while trying to restore business 
activity. But they are a jarring change for China, where "zero COVID," which 
aims to isolate every case, disrupted daily life and depressed economic 
activity but kept infection rates low.

   Xi's government began to loosen controls Nov. 11 after promising to reduce 
their cost and disruption. Imports tumbled 10.9% from a year ago in November in 
a sign of weak demand. Auto sales fell 26.5% in October.

   "Relaxing Covid controls will lead to greater outbreaks," said Neil Thomas 
and Laura Gloudeman of Eurasia Group in a report, "but Beijing is unlikely to 
return to the extended blanket lockdowns that crashed the economy earlier this 

   The changes suggest the ruling party is easing off its goal of preventing 
virus transmission, the basis of "zero COVID," but officials say that strategy 
still is in effect.

   Restrictions probably must stay in place at least through mid-2023, public 
health experts and economists say. They say millions of elderly people need to 
be vaccinated, which will take months, and hospitals strengthened to cope with 
a surge in cases. Officials announced a vaccination campaign last week.

   On Friday, the government reported 16,797 new cases, including 13,160 
without symptoms. That was down about one-fifth from the previous day and less 
than half of last week's daily peak above 40,000.

   More changes announced Wednesday allow people with mild COVID-19 cases to 
isolate at home instead of going to a quarantine center that some complained 
were crowded and unsanitary. That addressed a major irritant for the public.

   A requirement for subway riders, supermarket shoppers and others to show 
negative virus tests also was dropped, though they still are needed for schools 
and hospitals.

   A post signed Where Dreams Begin Under Starlight by a user in Dazhou, a 
southwestern city in Sichuan province, said all but five students in a public 
school class of 46 were infected.

   "It's really amazing that the school insists students go to school," the 
user wrote. The user didn't respond to a question sent through the account.

   The requirement for hundreds of millions of people to be tested as often as 
once a day in some areas over the past two years helped the government spot 
infections with no symptoms. Ending that approach reduces the cost of 
monitoring employees and customers at offices, shops and other businesses. But 
it increases the risk they might spread the virus.

   This week's changes follow protests that erupted Nov. 25 in Shanghai, 
Beijing and other cities against the human cost of "zero COVID."

   It isn't clear whether any of the changes were a response to protests, which 
died out following a security crackdown.

   The ruling party's Politburo on Wednesday declared stabilizing weak economic 
growth its priority, though leaders have said local officials still are 
expected to protect the public.

   "The re-pivot to growth and the exit from zero-Covid are clear from the top 
level," said Larry Hu and Yuxiao Zhang of Macquarie Group, an Australian bank, 
in a report. However, they warned, "uncertainties remain high," including "how 
disruptive the exit of zero-Covid could be."

   Party leaders stopped talking about the official 5.5% annual growth target 
after the economy shrank by 2.6% from the previous quarter in the three months 
ending in June. That was after Shanghai and other industrial centers shut down 
for up to two months to fight outbreaks.

   Private sector economists have cut forecasts of annual growth to as low as 
below 3%, which would be less than half of last year's 8.1% and among the 
weakest in decades.

   Social media posts suggested some cities might have outbreaks that weren't 
reflected in official figures.

   Posts dated Thursday by 18 people who said they were in Baoding, a city of 
11 million southwest of Beijing, reported they tested positive using home kits 
or had fevers, sore throats and headaches. Meanwhile, the Baoding city 
government reported no new cases since Tuesday.

   Drugstores were mobbed by customers who bought medications to treat sore 
throats and headaches after rules were dropped that required pharmacists to 
report those purchases, prompting fears a customer might be forced into a 
quarantine center.

   Also Friday, the market regulator announced prices of some medicines 
including Lianhua Qingwen, a traditional flu treatment, rose as much as 500% 
over the past month. It said sellers might be punished for price-gouging.

   Lines formed outside hospitals, though it wasn't clear how many people 
wanted treatment for COVID-19 symptoms.

   People waited four to five hours to get into the fever clinic of Chaoyang 
Hospital in Beijing, according to a woman who answered the phone there and 
would give only her surname, Sun. She said no virus test was required but 
patients had to show a smartphone "health code" app that tracks their vaccine 
status and whether they have been to areas deemed at high risk of infection.

   Hong Kong, which enforces its own anti-virus strategy, has faced a similar 
rise in cases as the southern Chinese city tries to revive its struggling 
economy by loosening controls on travel and the opening hours of restaurants 
and pubs.

   Hong Kong reported 75,000 new cases over the past week, up about 25% from 
the previous week. But those don't include an unknown number of people who stay 
at home with COVID-19 symptoms and never report to the government.

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