The COVID-19 epidemic is exploding in China, but its extent is now “impossible” to determine, the Ministry of Health conceded on Wednesday, as tests are no longer mandatory since the sudden easing of health restrictions.
Beijing and its 22 million inhabitants are particularly affected by this wave of contamination, totally unprecedented in the city since the beginning of the pandemic and which has spread at lightning speed in recent days.
Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan said infections were “rising rapidly” in the capital. Many Beijingers claim on social media to be sick, and some companies have reported 90% of their staff unwell.
These massive contaminations in Beijing are a shock for many Chinese, because only a tiny minority of the country’s 1.4 billion inhabitants had been infected with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
Last week, China radically relaxed its health restrictions against the disease, which were intended to limit contamination and deaths as much as possible.
66.4%. This is the proportion of Chinese people aged 80 who have followed a complete vaccination schedule (three doses).
The authorities have notably decreed the end of the automatic placement in a quarantine center for people who have received a positive test and the cessation of massive screening campaigns by PCR tests – which were almost compulsory.
Consequence: the number of people who take the initiative to carry out a PCR test has fallen sharply. Logically, the number of detected cases plunges, giving the false impression of an improvement in the situation.
Self-tests and vaccines
The Ministry of Health has thus confirmed that the official statistics no longer reflect reality.
“Most people with the virus, but asymptomatic, no longer do PCR tests, so it is impossible to have an accurate idea of the true number of people infected,” he said.
The overwhelming majority of Chinese people now do self-tests at home, slipping under the radar of health authorities.
Contrary to the zero COVID strategy that it has long defended at all costs, the government now seems determined to continue the reopening of the country.
But this epidemic wave, set to spread to other parts of the country, could be hard hit by the hospital system, especially in less favored areas of the country.
The other worry concerns the elderly, millions of whom, by personal choice or lack of access to a doctor, are poorly vaccinated.
Among people over the age of 80, only 66.4% have a complete vaccination schedule (three doses), health authorities said on Wednesday.
They also announced that certain groups at risk, in particular those over 60, can now be administered a fourth dose.
If restaurants, cinemas, shopping centers or even parks have gradually reopened in recent days in Beijing, the streets remain paradoxically little frequented despite the lifting of the vast majority of restrictions.
Many sick residents prefer to stay at home to take care of themselves, others are afraid of being contaminated or of catching cold when going out at -5°C and some businesses have had to close because too many employees were sick.
“We have freedom of movement now,” welcomes an octogenarian to AFP who says he is “not very worried” about the Omicron variant.
“But you shouldn’t relax too much and give too much freedom right away. ‘Cause if you die, where’s the freedom, right? »
Several establishments in the capital, such as restaurants, continue to require a negative PCR test dating back less than 48 hours.
An explosion of cases before the lifting of restrictions, according to the WHO
The explosion of the COVID-19 outbreak in China we are witnessing occurred before the Chinese government began easing health restrictions, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Wednesday. ). “The explosion of cases in China is not due to the lifting of anti-COVID restrictions. The explosion of cases in China began long before any easing of the zero COVID policy,” Michael Ryan, the WHO’s head of emergency management, told reporters at WHO headquarters in Geneva. sanitary. According to the WHO official, the scenario that “China lifted the restrictions, and suddenly the epidemic is out of control”, is not the right explanation.
He said the “disease has spread rapidly, because control measures by themselves do not stop it”. “The increased intensity of transmissions occurred long before any change in the strategy” intended to limit contamination, underlined the WHO official. With the dominance of the highly contagious Omicron variant, extremely tough restrictions like those imposed in China do not serve the same purpose as in previous waves, when vaccination coverage was low. “Chinese authorities have strategically decided that for them, the zero COVID strategy is “no longer the best option,” he said.