BEIJING, Dec 11 (Reuters) – Beijing’s COVID-19 gloom deepened on Sunday as many shops and other businesses closed, and an expert warned of many thousands of new coronavirus cases, as anger over China’s previous Covid policies led to concern about its handling of the pandemic. .
China on Wednesday abandoned its strict COVID restrictions after unprecedented protests against them last month, but cities already struggling with the most severe outbreaks, such as Beijing, saw a sharp drop in economic activity after rules such as routine testing were lifted.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many businesses have been forced to close as infected workers are isolated at home, and many decide not to go out due to the high risk of infection.
Zhong Nanshan, a prominent Chinese epidemiologist, told state media that the Omicron strain of the virus circulating in China is highly contagious, and that one infected person can spread it to 18 people.
“We can see hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of people affected in many major cities,” Zhang said.
Official figures for new cases have fallen as routine Covid testing of Beijing residents has been scrapped and restricted to groups such as healthcare workers.
Health officials reported 1,661 new infections in Beijing on Saturday, down 42% from 3,974 on December 6, a day before national policies were dramatically relaxed.
But evidence suggests there are many more cases in the city of nearly 22 million people, where everyone knows someone who has contracted COVID.
“In my company, the number of people who are Covid-negative is close to zero,” said a woman who works at a tourism and events company in Beijing, who asked to be identified only as Nancy.
“We realize that this is unavoidable – everyone has to work from home,” he said.
Sunday is a normal business day for shops in Beijing, which is usually bustling, especially in places like the historic Shichahai neighborhood, which is full of boutiques and cafes.
But shopping malls in Beijing’s most populous district of Chaoyang were out and about on Sunday.
Economists widely expect China’s path to economic health to be bumpy, as workers are sick and shocks such as labor crises call for a full-scale recovery for a while yet.
“A transition to zero-COVID will eventually allow consumer spending patterns to return to normal, but the high risk of contagion will depress private spending months after reopening,” said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics. said in a note.
According to Capital Economics, China’s economy may grow by 1.6% in the first quarter of 2023 and 4.9% in the second year.
Epidemiologist Zhang added that it will take months to return to normal.
“My opinion is after March in the first half of next year,” he said.
Although China has lifted its domestic Covid restrictions, its international borders are still largely closed to foreigners, including tourists.
Incoming travelers are subject to five days of quarantine at centralized government facilities and another three days of self-monitoring at home.
But there are even hints that that rule may be changing.
As of Saturday, staff at the main international airport in the city of Chengdu, when asked whether quarantine rules were being relaxed, said it was up to authorities in a person’s neighborhood whether or not to undergo three days of home quarantine.
(This story has been reprinted to correct the spelling of ‘woman’ in paragraph 9)
Reporting by Ryan Woo, Albee Zhang, Josh Arslan, Liz Lee and Judy Hua; Editing by Robert Birzel
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