How the Chinese people are dealing with the spread of covid-19

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Ja little months ago Chinese people had little fear of catching covid-19. The government’s “zero-covid” measures kept them mostly safe. The virus was in massive trials and strict lockdowns. If someone tested positive, the government would step in. Those infected were taken to quarantine centers run by the state. If there are symptoms, they were treated in a designated hospital. Health workers would disinfect their house and test their neighbors.

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All this changed on December 7, when the central government suspended its zero-covid policy, lifting most restrictions. Six days later he deleted an app that tracked people’s movements. The highly transmissible Omicron variant had rendered zero-covid unsustainable.

Now the public is expected to look out for itself. “Be the first person responsible for your own health,” wrote the man Daily People, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party. Some Beijing residents have received letters from the local committees that used to enforce covid controls. Stop reporting fever and cough to us, one reading, before you make people good luck. “Thank you for the last three years of support and understanding.”

The official number of new cases is falling, as if the virus is fading away. But official numbers are no longer reliable because the government has stopped testing. If he has another way of keeping tabs on the epidemic, he’s not sharing it.

However, it is very clear that the wave of covid is building, as people are sharing stories of infections online. An informal survey has been circulating on social media asking Beijing residents if they have caught the virus. As The Economist went to press, 39% of the 434,000 or so respondents said yes.

Studies like this are amazing, not just for the numbers. A few months ago there was a stigma attached to people who had contracted covid. They may, for example, struggle to find jobs after recovery. Now the disease is so common that people are posting their test results on social media, often replacing the word “positive” with a cartoon of a sheep (which is the Chinese homophone for positive). Others share lighthearted advice about the best time to catch covid. An illness now or in early January, for example, could clear up in time to enjoy Christmas and the Lunar New Year. “Why am I not positive yet?” one young woman complained in a video.

Others, however, are concerned. Until recently the government told people to fear covid. Now the official line is that Omicron is no worse than the flu. People with the disease who are not showing serious symptoms have been encouraged to stay at home and treat themselves. Not everyone listens. Beijing’s emergency call operators are overwhelmed with more than 30,000 calls per day, about six times the average. Queues have formed outside fever clinics in several cities. Some medications are in short supply. On December 13th a healthcare website started selling Paxlovid, a highly effective antiviral drug used to treat covid. His first stock sold out in half an hour.

Hospitals are under more pressure as doctors and nurses catch the virus. There are reports that some medical staff who have tested positive have been asked to come in anyway, risking more transmission within hospitals. As of December 13, there were 50 seriously ill patients in Beijing, according to official figures. So far, the health system does not seem to be too big. But the height of this wave is still some way off. It will probably come at the end of January, at least in Beijing, says Ben Cowling, professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong.

With the government changing its message, people are looking elsewhere for guidance. Chinese students abroad who are experiencing covid are sharing advice on WeChat, a social media app. They tell people what symptoms to expect and how long they will last. In general, however, there is a lack of good information about the virus. There are reports of people going to hospital after taking too much fever medicine. Herbal remedies used to fight covid are in high demand, although doctors are skeptical about their effectiveness.

Vaccines, not voodoo

At least people now see the need to protect themselves from the virus, which was once seen as a terrible but distant threat. More are getting vaccinated. The number of bricks given out each day has increased from less than 200,000 to over 1m. But there is a lot of ground to make up, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable. Only about 40% of people over 80 have received the three doses needed to significantly reduce the risk of serious illness or death. But some elderly people have had trouble getting a shot because of a lack of supplies at clinics.

People are also taking steps to help reduce the spread of the disease and possibly reduce the pressure on hospitals. In Beijing the shopping malls and streets are mostly empty, because people are staying indoors. It’s called automatic locking. People who go out wear N95 masks (which are good at filtering small air particles). Demand for home delivery of food and groceries has increased.

But people still plan to travel back to their villages and hometowns for the lunar new year at the end of January. Data from Ctrip, a booking platform, shows that the number of inquiries for flights has increased by 160% since the government eased restrictions. Searches for train tickets on Baidu, a search engine, increased by almost 600% during that period. Many rural areas are woefully unprepared to deal with an increase in cases.

When the height of this wave approaches, “it would be wise to bring back some public health measures,” said Mr Cowling. But it may be difficult for the government to reverse course without admitting that it made a mistake.

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