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“He died here”: China’s slow exit from zero-COVID

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By Ryan Woo, Martin Quin Pollard and Josh Horwitz

BEIJING (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Judging by quiet streets on Friday in China’s capital Beijing and the reluctance of some businesses to step away from COVID constraints, lingering coronavirus anxieties are likely to hamper a quick return to health for the second-largest economy of the world.

Although the government relaxed key parts of its stringent “zero-COVID” policy on Wednesday that has kept the pandemic at bay for the past three years, many people appear wary that they are too quick to shake off the shackles.

In the central city of Wuhan, where the new coronavirus broke out in late 2019, there were more signs of life on Friday with some areas busy with commuters. But residents say a return to normalcy is a long way off.

“They have eased the measures but still no one is around,” said a taxi driver named Wang, who declined to give his full name.

“You see these streets, these streets… they should be busy, full of people. But there’s nobody. He’s dead out here.”

Yet China has been far from quiet in recent weeks, with COVID protests in many cities marking the biggest show of public discontent since President Xi Jinping came to power a decade ago.

Some of those protesters, tracked down by the Chinese security apparatus, now face anxious anticipation for their fate.

CHANGE MIND

Just over a month after the National Health Commission underlined commitment to its stringent virus containment policy, saying it “put people and lives first,” authorities have changed tack and are now telling people who have the least to fear.

The commission announced on Friday that it will convert temporary facilities used to treat COVID patients into permanent hospitals to boost treatment efforts.

Zhong Nanshan, a prominent Chinese epidemiologist, said 99 percent of people now infected with the virus would recover in 7 to 10 days, in comments reported by the ruling Communist Party-controlled People’s Daily.

But there are signs that the new reassuring message has yet to convince many of the country’s 1.4 billion people.

With the need for testing dropped and most infected people now allowed to isolate themselves at home, some have embraced the new freedoms. For others, habits formed over months of suffocating lockdowns are proving hard to break.

In the Beijing subway, many seats were empty on Friday night during what should have been rush hour, though the city this week eliminated the need to show negative tests to travel by train or enter offices.

Some downtown restaurants were deserted at lunchtime.

Amid the caution, state broadcaster CCTV announced further easing, with tourist and entertainment venues including theatres, libraries, internet cafes and board game centers no longer requiring COVID testing and health codes.

China’s tally of 5,235 COVID-related deaths is a tiny fraction of its population of 1.4 billion and extremely low by global standards. Some experts have warned that the toll could rise above 1.5 million if the exit is too hasty.

‘CHAOS’ FORWARD

Chinese regulators and state-owned banks are taking steps to split staff at their Beijing workplaces, sources told RockedBuzz via Reuters, as companies brace for a possible spike in COVID cases.

Manufacturers are also remaining cautious, keeping the COVID brakes on until they have a clearer picture of how workplaces will be affected as stringent measures are relaxed.

The firms told RockedBuzz via Reuters they expect to face extended periods with sick workers that could hamper operations, possibly for months.

While authorities have eliminated testing as a prerequisite for many businesses, hotpot chain Haidilao said it would continue to require daily PCR tests for staff at its food outlets in Beijing.

Analysts and business leaders expect China’s economy to recover late next year, as it follows the rocky path traveled by the rest of the world to open up and try to live with the disease.

China’s battered currency yuan climbed to a three-month high early Friday and its stock markets surged as investors looked beyond poor data to growth prospects.

Noel Quinn, chief executive of HSBC, which makes most of its revenue in the Greater China region, told a financial forum in Shanghai that China’s new measures represent “significant progress”.

“I sincerely hope they can be an important stepping stone towards fully reopening mainland China’s borders as soon as possible,” he told the Shanghai Bund summit via video link.

However, a wave of infections would likely depress economic growth in the coming months.

The China Automobile Manufacturers Association has warned that large-scale COVID infections would have an “adverse impact” on the auto market next year.

“There will be chaos,” said Jeffrey Goldstein, a China-based consultant who helps foreign brands produce goods in Asia.

“China is three years behind, so what will happen in China is what happened in the rest of the world.”

A RockedBuzz via Reuters poll expects China’s growth to slow to 3.2% in 2022, far below the official target of around 5.5%, marking one of the worst performances in nearly half a century.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Bernard Orr and the Beijing editorial team, Brenda Goh, Josh Horwitz and Jason Xue, Zoey Zhang in Shanghai, Martin Pollard in Wuhan and Selena Li in Hong Kong; Screenplay by John Geddie and Greg Torode; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Frank Jack Daniel and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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