China COVID cases rise, hard-hit Beijing districts shut schools

  • Three weekend deaths in Beijing, first since May
  • Guangzhou orders a five-day lockdown of its Baiyun district
  • China reported 26,824 new local cases nationally

BEIJING, Nov 21 (Reuters) – Students at schools in several districts of Beijing buckled down for online classes on Monday after authorities urged residents in some of the worst-hit areas to stay home as cases of COVID in the Chinese capital and on a national scale are growing.

China is battling multiple outbreaks of COVID-19, from Zhengzhou in central Henan province to Chongqing in the southwest. It reported 26,824 new local cases for Sunday, approaching the daily peak of the pandemic in the country in April.

It also recorded two deaths in Beijing, up from one on Saturday, the first in China since late May.

Guangzhou, a southern city of nearly 19 million people grappling with the worst of China’s recent outbreaks, ordered a five-day lockdown for Baiyun, its most populous district. It also suspended dinner services and closed nightclubs and theaters in the city’s main business district.

The latest wave is testing China’s resolve to stick to tweaks it has made to its zero-covid policy, which calls on cities to be more targeted in their containment measures and move away from widespread lockdowns and testing that have stifled the economy and disappointed the residents.

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Asian stock markets and oil prices fell on Monday as investors worried about the economic fallout from China’s intensifying COVID situation, with risk aversion favoring bonds and the dollar.

Beijing reported 962 new infections, up from 621 a day earlier. Its sprawling Chaoyang district, home to 3.5 million people, has urged residents to stay at home as schools go online.

The streets were quiet and residents were urged to work from home. Shops other than those selling groceries seemed mostly closed.

“You can’t go anywhere. Everything is closed. Customers can’t come either. What can you do? You can’t do anything,” said Jia Xi, 32, a salesman in the medical industry.

Some schools in Haidian, Dongcheng and Xicheng districts have also suspended in-person classes.

REVERSE APPROACH

Several Chinese cities began ending routine community-based testing for COVID-19 last week, including the northern city of Shijiazhuang, which has become the subject of fierce speculation that it could be a testing ground for easing the policy.

But late on Sunday, Shijiazhuang announced it would conduct mass testing in six of its eight districts over the next five days after daily local cases reached 641. It also encouraged residents to shop online and ordered some schools to suspend in-person classes.

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“They lasted a week,” said one popular Weibo comment about the Shijiazhuang curbs, which was among the most viewed topics on the social media platform.

The People’s Daily newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, published another article on Monday re-emphasizing the need to catch infections early, but to avoid adopting a “one-size-fits-all” approach, its eighth such article. since China announced its 20 adjusted measures on Nov. 11.

The National Health Commission published on Monday more detailed guidance on how these measures will be applied to testing, delineation and management of risk areas, and home isolation practices.

“FEEL THE STONES”

China’s recent efforts to make its COVID-19 containment more targeted have raised investor hopes for more significant easing, even as China faces its first winter struggling with the highly portable Omicron variant.

However, many analysts do not expect such a change to begin until March or April, with the government arguing that President Xi Jinping’s signature zero-Covid policy saves lives and is needed to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed.

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Experts say a full reopening requires a huge effort to boost vaccination and change messaging in a country where the disease remains widely feared. Authorities say they plan to build more hospital capacity and fever clinics to screen patients and formulate a vaccination campaign.

Oxford Economics said it expects to exit zero COVID only in the second half of 2023, with vaccination rates for the elderly still relatively low.

“Epidemiologically and politically, we do not think the country is ready to open yet,” it said in a report on Monday.

Hao Hong, chief economist at GROW Investment Group, said in a separate note that a gradual and managed reopening may already be underway, with circles back and forth as China “crosses the river while feeling the stones.”

“Despite mounting challenges, it is not a question of whether China will reopen, but a question of how long and how best to minimize health care costs and potential loss of life,” he said.

Reports from Shanghai and Beijing newsrooms; writing by Brenda Go; editing by Tony Munro and Lincoln Feist

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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