Chinese officials will meet over the next two days to figure out how to revive the country’s battered economy as COVID-19 infections surge again.
The annual economic policy conference follows a series of rollbacks on China’s “zero-COVID” controls following weeks of widespread protests across the country. Chinese President Xi Jinping strongly backed the raft of restrictions, but he appeared to relent following an overwhelming backlash.
The “zero-COVID” policy would see local officials mandate lockdowns for their cities or towns and mandate widespread PCR testing as well as quarantines of infected individuals after detecting only a few cases of the virus.
Xi had declared China’s victory in the “people’s war” against COVID-19 in March 2020 and used the policy as proof of the country’s superiority as a political system.
The about-face on what had remained a central policy for Xi’s government, therefore, caught many economic analysts by surprise and without many indications as to which way China might go as it seeks to revive its economic fortunes.
Economists estimate that China’s economic growth slowed to around 3% – well short of the official target of around 5.5%, which resulted in one of the worst performing years in China for almost half a century. The yuan is tracking for its worst year since 1994, when China unified the official and market exchange rates.
While exact case numbers have proven difficult to track due to the decrease in testing, state media reported late on Tuesday that roughly 50 people were critical or seriously ill in hospital with symptoms, and infections have risen in the cities of Wuhan and Chengdu.
China has not reported any COVID-related deaths since Dec. 3 and reported only 5,235 such deaths since the start of the pandemic three years ago.
Tracking cases will grow increasingly difficult as the National Health Commission said it would stop tracking asymptomatic cases starting Wednesday.
China opened 47,000 “fever clinics,” which are buildings that screen for infectious diseases, after the rollback of its more restrictive policies in an effort to maintain the freedom people have demanded while also staying ahead of any infection surge.
And those clinics have seen long lines as people wait for their turn to be tested while the number of cases continues to climb.
“This is the price we pay for being freer,” a 26-year-old named Liu who works in marketing told Reuters on the streets of the capital.
“Now it is essential that we improve our awareness in self-protection. I think now the risk depends on individuals,” she added, requesting anonymity.
Reuters contributed to this report.