'We're not ready': Threat of Covid exit wave hampers reopening of Chinese economy - Financial Times

‘We’re not ready’: Threat of Covid exit wave hampers reopening of Chinese economy – Financial Times

The big threat in a wave of release is just the number of cases in a short period of time. I would hesitate to say that there is a scenario in which a wave of exits would not cause problems for the health system. It’s hard to imagine.


— Ben Cowling, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong

Chinese doctors have a direct message for Xi Jinping: the country’s healthcare system is not prepared for a massive national coronavirus outbreak that will inevitably follow any relaxation of strict measures to contain Covid-19.

The warning to the Chinese leader was issued by a dozen health professionals interviewed by the Financial Times this month, and echoed by international experts.

“The medical system will likely be paralyzed in the face of mass cases,” said a doctor at a public hospital in Wuhan, central China, where the pandemic began nearly three years ago.

The warning also serves as a reality check for many people in China and around the world, hoping that Xi will end his zero-Covid policy. Experts said the policy meant China had not prioritized building strong defenses for a mass outbreak, instead focusing its resources on containment.

At the heart of the problem Beijing has created for itself is what many see as an inevitable “exit wave,” a rapid rise in infections as the country lifts its heavy pandemic restrictions.

This wave threatens to overwhelm the country’s health services unless Xi and his top lieutenants make sweeping changes to the zero-Covid policy in the works.

The official number of cases in China is at its highest level in six months, including record numbers of infections in the capital Beijing and the southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou.

See: Chinese COVID-19 restrictions hit historic Beijing theater

The zero-Covid strategy involves lockdowns – of buildings, suburbs or entire cities – as well as mass testing, quarantines and electronic contact tracing. While successful in suppressing outbreaks, the policy has exacerbated problems in China’s healthcare system and left much of the population deeply scared of the virus.

Chinese elderly have resisted taking a vaccine to prevent it. Only 40% of over-80s have received three injections of a locally manufactured vaccine, the dose required to achieve high levels of protection against the Omicron variant.

Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said Chinese hospitals could be overwhelmed by an influx of unvaccinated elderly patients in the event of a massive outbreak, replicating a crisis in Hong Kong this year when hospitals and morgues ran out of space. at the height of an epidemic.

“A Hong Kong-like outbreak is preventable if they increase vaccination coverage for the elderly and stockpile antivirals, two things Hong Kong didn’t do before the outbreak,” he said.

Yet in recent weeks, some analysts and stock market traders have reacted enthusiastically to perceived signs of Beijing turning to a “reopening” plan – a change of course that they hope will boost confidence in the most the world’s largest consumer market and mitigate the disruptions that have sporadically shaken global supply chains. Optimism rose last week after Beijing eased quarantine requirements for close contacts and international travellers.

Frontline staff say nearly three years into the pandemic, China’s healthcare system is much more strained than it was at the start. Funding, staff and scarce medical resources have been redirected to pandemic controls instead of preparations to treat the most vulnerable.

“Over the past few years, China’s healthcare system has completely limped on, putting all its manpower, funding and support into Covid prevention and control,” a provincial health official said. from Guangdong, in southern China. “It’s unsustainable.”

Those concerns, the official said, were relayed to Beijing.

“Unfortunately, the central government has still not made substantial adjustments in the general direction,” the official added.

“Most local officials and healthcare workers are very often at the mercy of rigid administrative orders, so the tragedy of patients not being able to get timely medical care happens again and again,” said another doctor from Wuhan.

During a lockdown in Shanghai in April, frontline medical staff struggled to cope with increased workloads after many staff were redirected to carry out tests across the city .

“The medical system is not ready for full-scale reopening,” said another doctor working at a district hospital in northern China’s Inner Mongolia.

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