Mask-wearing commuters from Beijing and Shanghai are filling the subways, and China’s two largest cities are getting closer to life with COVID-19 as millions have been infected with the virus across the country.
After years of reckless containment of the coronavirus, President Xi Jinping has rejected the country’s zero-COVID policy in the face of protests and a widening outbreak.
But after the initial shock of the political U-turn and a few weeks in which people in Beijing and Shanghai stayed indoors to either fight with the disease or avoid it, there are signs that life is on its way back to normal.
Subways in Beijing and Shanghai were overcrowded on Monday, and some major traffic arteries in the two cities were clogged with slow-moving cars as residents commuted to work.
An annual Christmas market on the Bund, an industrial park in Shanghai, was also overcrowded over the weekend. During the Christmas season, crowds of people crowded Shanghai Disneyland and Universal Studios in Beijing on Sunday, lining up for rides in Christmassy outfits.
The number of trips to picturesque places in the southern city of Guangzhou rose by 132 percent this weekend compared to last weekend, reported local newspaper The 21st Century Business Herald.
China is the last major country committed to treating COVID as endemic. Their containment measures had slowed the $17 trillion economy to its lowest growth rate in almost half a century and disrupted global supply chains and trade.
Analysts say the economy is expected to continue to suffer in the short term as the COVID wave spreads to manufacturing areas and the workforce falls ill before recovering next year.
Tesla stopped production at its Shanghai plant on Saturday and planned to stop most work at the plant in the last week of December. The company did not give any reason.
Despite a nationwide record rise in cases, China reported no COVID deaths on the mainland in the six days to Sunday, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said on Sunday, even though crematoria faced rising demand.
China has restricted its definition of classifying deaths as COVID-related and only counted those involving COVID-related pneumonia or respiratory failure, which has caused world health experts to frown.
According to state media, the country’s healthcare system was heavily burdened. Staff were asked to work in case of illness and retired medical staff in rural communities were reinstated to help.
The provincial government of Zhejiang, a large industrial province near Shanghai with a population of 65.4 million, announced on Sunday that it is dealing with around one million new COVID-19 infections every day, a number that is expected to double in the coming days.
Health authorities in southeastern Jiangxi province have said that infections would peak in early January, adding that there could be further highs as people travel to the Lunar New Year celebrations next month, state media reported.
They warned that the wave of infections would last for three months and that around 80 percent of the province’s 45 million inhabitants could be infected.
The city of Qingdao in eastern Shandong province estimates that up to 530,000 inhabitants were infected every day.
Cities across China are scrambling to set up intensive care units and fever clinics to prevent the spread of contagious diseases in hospitals.
According to the Beijing municipal government, the number of fever clinics in the city has risen from 94 to almost 1,300, state media said. There are 2,600 such clinics in Shanghai and doctors have been transferred from less burdened medical departments to help.
The ability of less affluent cities in China to cope with the rise in serious infections remains worrying, particularly as hundreds of millions of rural migrant workers are expected to return to their families for the Lunar New Year.