Streets in major Chinese cities were eerily quiet on Sunday as people stayed home to protect themselves from a surge in COVID-19 cases that has hit urban centers from north to south.
China is currently in the first of an expected three waves of COVID cases this winter, according to the country’s chief epidemiologist, Wu Zunyou. Cases could multiply across the country if people follow typical travel patterns of returning to their home areas in a mass transit movement for the Lunar New Year holiday next month, Reuters reported.
China is also yet to officially report any COVID deaths since Dec. 7, when the country abruptly ended most restrictions key to a zero-COVID tolerance policy following unprecedented public protests against the protocol. The strategy had been championed by President Xi Jinping.
As part of the easing of the zero-COVID curbs, mass testing for the virus has ended, casting doubt on whether officially reported case numbers can capture the full scale of the outbreak. China reported some 2,097 new symptomatic COVID infections on Dec. 17.
In Beijing, the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant has already hit services from catering to parcel deliveries. Funeral homes and crematoriums across the city of 22 million are also struggling to keep up with demand.
Social media posts also showed empty subways in the city of Xian in China’s northwest, while internet users complained of delays to deliveries.
In Chengdu, streets were deserted but food delivery times were improving, said a resident surnamed Zhang, after services began to adapt to the recent surge in cases.
Getting hold of antigen test kits was still difficult however, she said. Her recent order had been redirected to hospitals, she said, citing the provider.
In Shanghai, authorities said schools should move most classes online from Monday, and in nearby Hangzhou most school grades were encouraged to finish the winter semester early.
In Guangzhou, those already doing online class as well as pre-schoolers should not prepare for a return to school, said the education bureau.
Speaking at a conference in Beijing on Saturday, chief epidemiologist Wu of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said the current outbreak would peak this winter and run in three waves for about three months, according to a state media report of his speech.
The first wave would run from mid-December through mid-January, largely in cities, before a second wave would start from late January to mid-February next year, triggered by the movement of people ahead of the week-long New Year holiday.
China will celebrate Lunar New Year starting on Jan. 21. The holiday normally sees hundreds of millions of people travelling home to spend time with family.
A third wave of cases would run from late February to mid-March as people returned to work after the holiday, Wu said.
A US-based research institute said this week that the country could see an explosion of cases and over a million people in China could die of COVID in 2023.
Wu said severe cases in China had declined over the last years, and that vaccination that has already taken place offered a certain degree of protection. He said those in the community that are vulnerable should be protected, while recommending booster vaccines for the general public.
Almost 87% of over 60s have been fully vaccinated, but only 66.4% of people over the age of 80 have completed a full course of vaccination, said official news agency Xinhua.