February 7, 2023

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Xi says COVID control is entering a new phase with cases increasing after reopening

  • Xi: China has overcome unprecedented difficulties in the battle against COVID-19
  • Still time to struggle to get COVID under control: Xi
  • In Wuhan, the increase in the number of new cases is showing signs of improvement
  • A health official said Shanghai has 10 million infections
  • The end of COVID-free restrictions is of global concern

WUHAN/BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday called for greater effort and unity as the country enters a “new phase” in its approach to fighting the pandemic, in his first comments to the public on COVID-19. Since his government changed course three weeks ago and eased its strict policy of lockdowns and mass testing.

China’s abrupt shift earlier this month from the “zero COVID” policy it has maintained for nearly three years has sent infections spreading across the country unchecked. It also caused a further decline in economic activity and international concern, with Britain and France becoming the latest countries to impose restrictions on travelers from China.

The shift by China followed unprecedented protests against the policy Xi has espoused, marking the strongest display of public defiance in his decade-long presidency and coinciding with grim growth figures for the country’s $17 trillion economy.

In a televised New Year’s address, Xi said China has overcome unprecedented difficulties and challenges in the battle against the coronavirus, and its policies have been “improved” when the situation and time require it.

“Since the outbreak of the epidemic… the majority of cadres and the masses, especially medical workers, grassroots workers have faced hardships and bravely endured,” Xi said.

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“At present, epidemic prevention and control is entering a new stage, and it is still a time of struggle, everyone is persevering and working hard, and the dawn is ahead. Let us work harder, perseverance means victory, and unity means victory.”

New Year’s Eve spurred thinking online and by residents of Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID outbreak for nearly three years, about the zero COVID policy and its reversing effect.

People in the central city of Wuhan have expressed hope that life will return to normal in 2023 despite an increase in cases since restrictions on the spread of the epidemic were lifted.

Chen Mei, a 45-year-old resident of Wuhan, said she hoped her teenage daughter would not see more disruptions to her education.

“When she can’t go to school and can only take lessons online, it’s definitely not an effective way to learn,” she said.

The video has been removed

Many people across the country have expressed similar hopes on social media, while others have criticized.

Thousands of users of Chinese Twitter-like site Weibo have criticized the removal of a video posted by local outlet Netease News that compiled real-life stories from 2022 that appealed to the Chinese audience.

Many of the stories in the video, which could not be viewed or shared on local social media platforms on Saturday, highlighted the hardships faced by ordinary Chinese as a result of the previously strict COVID policy.

Weibo and Netease did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Weibo hashtag about the video got nearly 4 million hits before it disappeared from the platforms around noon on Saturday. Social media users created new hashtags to keep the comments flowing.

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“What a perverted world, you can only sing the praises of fake but can’t show real life,” wrote one user, attaching a screenshot of a blank page that is displayed when searching for hashtags.

The disappearance of the videos and hashtags, seen by many as an act of censorship, indicates that the Chinese government still sees the narrative surrounding its handling of the disease as a politically sensitive issue.

Hospitals are covered

The wave of new infections has swept hospitals and funeral homes across the country, with strains outside crematoriums of public concern.

China, a country of 1.4 billion people, reported one new coronavirus death on Friday, as it did the day before — numbers that don’t match the experience of other countries after they reopened.

UK-based health data company Airfinity said Thursday that about 9,000 people in China likely die each day from COVID. She added that the cumulative deaths in China since December 1 have likely reached 100,000, and the total number of infections has reached 18.6 million.

Shanghai reached the peak of infections on December 22, saying there are currently about 10 million cases, Zhang Wenhong, director of the National Center for Communicable Diseases, told the People’s Daily in an interview published on Saturday.

He said those figures indicate that about 50,000 people in the city of 25 million will need hospitalization in the next few weeks.

At Wuhan Central Hospital, where Li Wenliang, a former COVID whistleblower who later died of the virus in early 2020, worked, a worker outside the hospital’s fever clinic told Reuters, there were fewer patients on Saturday compared to a rush in the past few weeks.

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“This wave is almost over,” said the worker, who was wearing a protective suit.

A pharmacist whose shop is located next to the hospital said most people in the city have been infected and recovered.

“It is mainly the elderly who are getting sick now,” he said.

In the first indication of the toll on China’s manufacturing giant from the change in COVID policy, data on Saturday showed factory activity contracted for a third consecutive month in December and at the highest pace in nearly three years.

Additional reporting by Martin Quinn Pollard, Tingshu Wang, and Xiaoyu Yin in Wuhan, and Eduardo Baptista in Beijing; Written by Sumit Chatterjee, Editing by Helen Popper and Frances Kerry

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.