New Delhi: Almost three years after Covid-19 emerged in China, some citizens recently staged rare public protests against the zero-Covid policy that called for economically damaging lockdowns and strict quarantine in government facilities.

Recently, on Wednesday Beijing abruptly relaxed the policy after the nationwide protests, which was cheered by some, but also sparked apprehension in a country with a relatively low vaccination rate where people had been taught to fear the disease.

Reuters stated that when a 30-year-old Li tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday in Baoding in northern China, he braced for a five-day quarantine at a makeshift local hospital as part of the country’s strict pandemic controls.

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Instead, China immediately eased the restrictions the next day.

Li, who asked to be identified only by his family name, told Reuters he was allowed to recuperate at home in the industrial city near the capital Beijing.

But the sudden policy shift caught him off guard – left on his own, he had no medication at home to treat his fever, Reuters added.

“I couldn’t buy any medication at that time, with long queues everywhere outside pharmacies,” Li said as quoted by Reuters.

The sudden change in policy made the world’s most-populous country an outlier in a world largely learning to live with coronavirus.

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Furthermore, the relaxation of mandatory PCR testing for China’s 1.4 billion people has undermined health officials’ capacity to promptly detect cases and evaluate how infections are spreading, disrupting society and the economy.

Since relaxing the restrictions, officials have not forecast how many people may become very ill or die. China projected at least 100 fatalities for every 100,000 infections in October.

Lack of drugs

Baoding, which is home to around 9.2 million people, drew notice on China’s Twitter-like Weibo with posts from people with Covid 19 calling attention to understocked medical supplies as infections surged.

News agency Reuters during a visit to Baoding found that some stocks have been replenished with cold relief drugs like Ibuprofen available at many pharmacies. But the popular traditional Chinese medicine Lianhua Qingwen, used for symptoms like fever and cough, and antigen test kits remained harder to find.

Baoding is not alone. Online pharmacies across China have run out of drugs and test kits, prompting the government to crack down on hoarding, Reuters further stated.

Officials have urged households to report serious symptoms, using self-administered antigen kits. But those kits are still hard to come by, raising the risk the seriously ill might not be treated promptly.

Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at Hong Kong University said that “There will certainly be increasing numbers of infections” in the coming weeks, regardless of how many are captured in the test numbers, as quoted by Reuters. Severe infections will also increase, he further warned.

The risk of severe illness for those over 65 is five times that of younger people, the risk for people over 75 seven times and nine times for those over 85, while their risk of death is 90, 220 and 570 times higher, respectively, said an official at China’s Center for Disease Control.

A health official recently said that China has 138,100 hospital beds for critical care, low for China’s vast population.

(With inputs from Reuters)

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