BEIJING, Dec. 11 (Reuters) – Gloom deepened in Beijing on Sunday as many shops and other businesses closed and an expert warned of several thousand cases of the new coronavirus, as anger over China’s past coronavirus policies gave way to concern about handling infections. .
China lifted most of its toughest restrictions on the spread of the coronavirus on Wednesday after unprecedented protests against it last month, but cities already grappling with the most severe outbreaks, such as Beijing, saw economic activity drop sharply after rules such as regular testing were scrapped.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many businesses have been forced to close as infected workers quarantine at home while many people 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 prevalent in China is highly transmissible and an infected person can spread it to up to 18 others.
“We can see hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of people infected in several major cities,” Zhong said.
With regular COVID tests for Beijing residents canceled and reserved only for groups like health workers, official numbers of new cases have fallen.
Health authorities reported 1,661 new infections in Beijing on Saturday, down 42% from 3,974 on Dec. 6, the day before national policies were significantly eased.
But the evidence suggests there are so many cases in the city of nearly 22 million people that everyone seems to know someone who has contracted COVID.
“In my company, the number of people with negative coronavirus is close to zero,” said a woman who works for a travel and events company in Beijing, who asked not to be identified as just Nancy.
“We know this is unavoidable – everyone just has to work from home,” she said.
Sunday is a normal working day for shops in Beijing and is usually bustling, especially in places like the historic Shichahai district, which is packed with shops and cafes.
But few people went out on Sunday, and shopping malls in Chaoyang, Beijing’s most populous district, were practically deserted with many salons, restaurants and retailers closed.
Economists widely expect China’s path to economic health to be uneven as shocks such as the employment crisis cause workers to demand a satisfactory delay of a full recovery for some time yet.
“Transitioning from a zero-COVID situation will eventually allow consumer spending patterns to return to normal, but the higher risk of infection will keep personal spending down for several months after reopening,” said Mark Williams, chief economist for Asia at Capital Economics. said in a note.
The Chinese economy may grow 1.6% in the first quarter of 2023 compared to a year earlier, and 4.9% in the second quarter, according to Capital Economics.
Epidemiologist Zhong also said that it will take a few months before returning to normal.
“My opinion is in the first half of next year after March,” he said.
While China has removed most of its domestic coronavirus restrictions, its international borders remain largely closed to foreigners, including tourists.
Incoming travelers are subject to five days of quarantine at central government facilities and an additional three days of self-monitoring at home.
But there are even hints that this rule could change.
Staff at Chengdu’s main international airport, when asked if quarantine rules have been relaxed, said that from Saturday, whether or not a person needs to do a three-day home quarantine will depend on the person’s neighborhood authorities.
(This story has been paraphrased to correct the spelling of “woman” in paragraph 9.)
(Reporting by Ryan Wu, Albie Zhang, Josh Arslan, Liz Lee and Judy Hua; Editing by Robert Purcell
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