CHENGDU: Chinese hospitals were under intense pressure on Wednesday (Dec 28) as a surging wave of COVID-19 infections strained resources in the last major country to move towards treating the virus as endemic.
In an abrupt change of policy, China earlier this month began dismantling the world's strictest COVID -19 regime of lockdowns and extensive testing, putting its battered economy on course for a complete re-opening next year.
The move, which came after widespread protests against the restrictions, means COVID-19 is spreading largely unchecked and likely infecting millions of people a day, according to some international health experts.
The winter surge comes ahead of next month's Chinese New Year, in which hundreds of millions of people are expected to travel to their hometowns to reunite with relatives.
Chinese authorities have admitted the scale of the outbreak is now "impossible" to track and narrowed the criteria for defining Covid deaths.
The speed at which COVID-19 rules have been scrapped has left China's fragile health system overwhelmed and prompted countries around the world, which have long been living with the virus, to consider travel restrictions for Chinese visitors, given questions about official data coming out of Beijing.
Staff at Huaxi, a large hospital in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, said they were “extremely busy” caring for patients with COVID-19, as they have been ever since curbs were eased on Dec 7.
"I’ve been doing this job for 30 years and this is the busiest I have ever known it," said one ambulance driver outside the hospital who declined to be named.
There were long queues inside and outside the hospital’s emergency department and at the adjacent fever clinic on Tuesday evening. Most of those who arrived in ambulances were given oxygen tanks to assist with their breathing.
“Almost all of the patients have COVID-19,” one emergency department pharmacy staff member said.
The hospital has no stocks of COVID-specific medicine and instead can simply provide drugs for specific symptoms such as coughing, she added.
Beijing city authorities plan to distribute the oral COVID-19 drug Paxlovid at local hospitals and community clinics, but it remains extremely difficult to obtain for ordinary people.
Car parks around the Dongjiao funeral home, one of the biggest in Chengdu, were full. Funeral processions were constant as smoke billowed from the crematorium.
“We have to do this about 200 times a day now,” said one funeral worker. “We are so busy we don’t even have time to eat. This has been the case since the opening up. Before it was around 30-50 a day.”
"Many have died from COVID-19,” said another worker.
At another Chengdu crematorium, privately-owned Nanling, staff were equally busy.
“There have been so many deaths from COVID-19 lately,” one worker said. “Cremation slots are all fully booked. You can’t get one until the new year.”
China has said it only counts deaths of COVID-19 patients caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure as COVID-related.
Zhang Yuhua, an official at the Beijing Chaoyang Hospital said patients who have come in recently are mainly the elderly and critically ill with underlying diseases. She said the number of patients receiving emergency care had increased from 450 to 550 per day, from roughly 100 before, according to state media.
The China-Japan Friendship Hospital's fever clinic in Beijing was also "packed" with elderly patients, state media reported.
Nurses and doctors have been asked to work while sick and retired medical workers in rural communities have been rehired to help. Some cities have been struggling with drug shortages.
In a major step towards freer travel, China will stop requiring inbound travellers to go into quarantine from Jan 8, authorities said this week, prompting many Chinese, cut off from the world for so long, to check travel platforms.
The global financial hub of Hong Kong also said on Wednesday it would scrap most of its last remaining COVID-19 restrictions.
Online searches for flights out of China spiked on Tuesday from extremely low levels, but residents and travel agencies suggested a return to anything like normal would take some months yet, as caution prevails for now.
Moreover, some governments were considering extra travel requirements for Chinese visitors.
US officials cited "the lack of transparent data, including viral genomic sequence data," as reasons for doing so.
India and Japan would require a negative COVID-19 test for travellers from mainland China, with those testing positive in Japan having to undergo a week in quarantine. Tokyo also plans to limit airlines increasing flights to China.
The Philippines was also considering imposing tests.