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China’s sudden and ill-prepared exit from zero coronavirus outbreaks could kill nearly a million people, a new study suggests, as the country braces for an unprecedented wave of infections spreading from its largest cities to vast rural areas.
For nearly three years, the Chinese government has used strict lockdowns, centralized quarantines, mass testing and rigorous contact tracing to contain the spread of the virus. The costly tactic was dropped earlier this month after protests erupted across the country against the strict restrictions that were upending businesses and everyday life.
But experts warn that the country is not ready for such a drastic exit in terms of increasing vaccination rates among the elderly, increasing hospital surge and intensive care capacity and stockpiling antiviral drugs.
Under current circumstances, reopening the country across the country could result in as many as 684 deaths per million people, according to projections by three professors at the University of Hong Kong.
Given China’s population of 1.4 billion, this would result in 964,400 deaths.
A research paper posted last week on the Medrxiv preprint server, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, said the surge in infections “could overload health systems in many parts of the country.”
Studies have shown that lifting restrictions in all provinces at the same time would result in a 1.5 to 2.5-fold increase in the need for hospitalization.
But this worst-case scenario could be avoided if China quickly rolled out booster shots and antiviral drugs.
According to the study, which was partially funded by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reaching 85% vaccination coverage with the fourth dose and 60% antiviral coverage could reduce deaths by 26% to 35% and the Hong Kong government.
On Monday, Chinese health authorities announced two deaths from COVID-19, both in the capital Beijing, which is grappling with the worst outbreak since the pandemic began.
It was the first officially reported death since restrictions were eased sharply on Dec. 7, although posts on Chinese social media pointed to a surge in demand at funeral homes and crematoria in Beijing in recent weeks.
An employee at a funeral home on the outskirts of Beijing told CNN they were overwhelmed by cremation lines, with customers waiting until at least the next day to cremate their loved ones.
On Baidu, China’s main online search engine, searches for “funeral parlor” by Beijing residents hit an all-time high since the outbreak began.
Other major cities are also facing surges in infections. In Shanghai, the financial hub, schools moved most classes online starting Monday. In the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, authorities told students they were already taking classes online and that preschoolers should not prepare for returning to school.
In the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, authorities announced on Sunday that public sector workers who tested positive for the new coronavirus could go to work “as usual” – a critical moment for a city that was in the throes of a massive lockdown just weeks ago. Significant change.
It is difficult to judge the true scale of the outbreak from official figures. China stopped reporting asymptomatic cases last week, acknowledging that it was no longer possible to track the actual number of infections. These asymptomatic cases once accounted for the majority of the country’s official cases. But the rest of the case numbers have also been rendered meaningless as cities canceled mass testing and allowed people to use antigen tests and quarantine at home.
Chinese experts warn that the worst is yet to come. Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said China was experiencing the first of three expected waves of infections this winter.
At a conference in Beijing on Saturday, Wu said the current wave would last until mid-January. The second wave is expected to last from late January to mid-February next year, triggered by mass travel ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday on January 21.
Every year, hundreds of millions of people who leave their hometowns to earn a living in China’s fast-growing cities pour into trains, buses and planes to see family members – a weeks-long travel rush that has been billed as the largest annual human migration on Earth.
For three years in a row, authorities have blocked these return trips under a zero-Covid policy. Experts have warned that the virus could sweep through rural China, where vaccination rates are low and medical resources are scarce, as domestic travel restrictions are lifted.
The third wave of cases will continue from late February to mid-March as people return to work after a week-long holiday, Wu said.