Beijing, gripped by the fastest spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus, reported two more COVID-19 deaths on Monday as the virus struck the majority of the city’s 21.54 million people, including foreign diplomatic missions, mounting massive pressure on health facilities.
The latest reported Covid-19 deaths in the capital were the first official fatalities since the government abandoned its stringent anti-virus controls earlier this month following widespread protests against the zero-Covid policy.
According to health officials, Chinese cities are currently hit by highly transmissible Omicron strains mainly BA.5.2 and BF.7, which are spreading like wildfire.
Beijing is reeling under the impact of the BF.7, which WHO officials say is the fastest spreading Covid virus that has overwhelmed the city’s health networks as thousands of people rushed to fever clinics, seeking urgent treatment.
Health officials say the virus results in severe throat infections besides, body aches, medium to high fever but not life-threatening, unlike the deadly Delta virus.
According to one estimate, over 70 per cent of the city’s population has been hit by the virus, which confined millions of people to their homes.
It has also damaged China’s claims of keeping the coronavirus under check as diplomats, including that of the UN, as well as foreign missions and media were swept away by it confining themselves and their families to their homes for days together causing anxiety and fear.
The striking feature of the crisis is that China has lost count of the cases as it stopped public testing for nearly two weeks. As a result, people are forced to buy self-testing antigen kits which are now being sold in black at exorbitant prices.
About China’s reportage of Covid death, Benjamin Cowling, head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong, said the number of deaths reported since the restrictions eased was “a bit smaller than we might expect, but consistent with the very low rate of PCR testing in China now”.
“I think there are deaths due to Covid in China which are not laboratory confirmed and therefore not counted in the official tally, but that is true anywhere in the world – it’s not something unique to China,” he told the South China Morning Post on Monday.
China is facing an unprecedented wave of infections after a sudden policy shift from zero-Covid that followed protests in multiple cities over lockdowns and mass testing. Those who test positive can now isolate at home instead of being sent to a quarantine facility, while regular PCR testing is no longer compulsory and people can opt to take rapid antigen tests.
Hospitals in Beijing are facing staff shortages and an influx of patients since the policy U-turn, the Post report said.
Many residents in the capital are struggling to get hold of medicine, with long queues at hospital fever clinics and a spike in calls for ambulances.
The city’s funeral centres too was under pressure with more cremations.
At the Beijing Dongjiao Funeral Home, which handles Covid cases, grieving relatives say they have been waiting for days to have family members cremated, the report said.
One woman waiting outside, who would only give her family name of Wang, said her 83-year-old father-in-law had a heart problem and his situation had worsened after contracting the virus. He died in hospital on Monday morning.
“We’re trying to make an appointment for a cremation but I don’t know when it can happen,” she told the daily.
With so much confusion about the government's handling of fast spreading covid, there is growing concern about how to protect millions of China’s elderly people, majority of whom are not been vaccinated.
The elderly, aged 65 and above, exceed 200 million people, accounting for 14.2 per cent of the Chinese population as of the end of 2021, the state-run Global Times reported.
Data showed elderly people who have underlying diseases and complications such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases are susceptible to severe cases.
"It's necessary to set up a hierarchical diagnosis and treatment system for elderly people, which could diagnose seniors and treat them better based on their health status," Chen Erzhen, a deputy head of Ruijin Hospital in Shanghai said.
Leading Chinese epidemiologists say the epidemic will peak in January and February, although the number of Covid infections will continue to increase in a short term.
Epidemiologist Wu Zunyou has said the current spike in infections would run until mid-January, while the second wave would then be triggered by mass travel in January around the week-long Lunar New Year celebrations which begin on January 21.
Millions of people usually travel at this time to spend the holiday with family.
The third surge in cases would run from late February to mid-March as people return to work after the holiday, Dr Wu was quoted in the media as saying.