By Ryan Woo, Josh Horwitz and Martin Quin Pollard
BEIJING (Reuters) – Judging by Friday’s quiet streets in the heart of China’s capital and city eateries adherence to virus curbs, the anxieties created by the ‘zero-COVID’ regime could hinder the world’s second largest economy’s return to health.
Though the government on Wednesday loosened key parts of the strict controls that kept the pandemic largely at bay for the past three years, many people and businesses appear wary of being too quick to shake off the shackles.
In the central city of Wuhan, where the pandemic erupted in late 2019, there were more signs of life with some areas busy with commuters on Friday. But locals say a return to normal is still a long way off.
“They’ve relaxed the measures but still, there’s nobody about,” said a taxi driver surnamed Wang, who didn’t want to give his full name.
“You see these roads, these streets…they ought to be, busy, full of people. But there’s no one. It’s dead out here.”
Yet China has been anything but placid during the past few weeks, with protests against the stifling COVID curbs in many cities across the country that marked the biggest show of public discontent since President Xi Jinping came to power a decade ago.
Little more than a month after the National Health Commission stressed commitment to its strict virus containment policy, saying it was “putting people and lives first”, it has sounded a retreat from “zero-COVID” and officials are now telling people they have less to fear.
Zhong Nanshan, a leading Chinese epidemiologist famed for combating the 2003 SARS epidemic, said that 99% of people now infected with the virus would recover in 7 to 10 days, in comments reported by the People’s Daily, controlled by the ruling Communist Party.
But there are signs the reassuring new message has still to convince many of the country’s 1.4 billion people.
With the need for tests dropped and most infected people now being allowed to isolate at home, some have embraced new found freedoms. For others, habits formed under months of stifling lockdowns, are proving hard to break.
There were several empty seats in what should have been peak rush hour for commuters on the Beijing subway on Friday morning, even though the city this week dropped the need to show negative tests to ride trains or enter offices.
Manufacturers and eateries remain cautious too, retaining COVID-19 curbs until they get a clearer picture of just how workplaces will be affected by the easing of stringent measures.
Businesses told Reuters they are expecting to have to grapple with long periods of absence by sick workers that could hamper operations, perhaps for months.
In downtown Beijing on Friday, a restaurant at a mall that serves local cuisine still doesn’t offer dine-in service while others on the same floor do.
“Although we are now allowed to resume eat-in service, our staff are sick and are still at home, so we haven’t got enough hands to serve meals,” a staffer told Reuters, requesting anonymity.
China’s current tally of 5,235 COVID-related deaths is a tiny fraction of its population of 1.4 billion, and extremely low by global standards. Some experts have warned that toll could rise above 1.5 million if the exit is too hasty.
Analysts expect China’s economy to rebound late next year as it follows the rocky path trodden by the rest of the world to open up and live with the disease. But a surge in infections will likely depress growth in the next few months.
A Reuters poll forecast China’s growth to slow to 3.2% in 2022, far below the official target of around 5.5%, marking one of the worst performances in almost half a century.
“China’s three years behind, so what’s going to happen in China is what happened in the rest of the world,” said Jeffrey Goldstein, a China-based consultant who helps foreign brands manufacture goods in Asia.
“There’s going to be chaos.”
(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Bernard Orr and the Beijing newsroom, Brenda Goh and Josh Horwitz in Shanghai and Martin Pollard in Wuhan; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)