The latest change in government policy has been shocking. Despite mass protests against arbitrary and excessive zero covid restrictions in at least a dozen cities last month, few expected the government to move so quickly in the opposite direction. After more than two years of strict and pervasive covid control, many Chinese report feeling left on their own.
Pharmacies across the country are running out of fever medication, as well as traditional herbal remedies. Supermarkets and online retailers are being bought out of food believed to help the recovery. The Paxlovid antiviral made by Pfizer sold almost immediately at nearly $430 a box when online pharmacy 111, Inc. opened for sale on Tuesday.
Covid spreads and medical staff fall ill after China eases restrictions
Esther Cui, a 28-year-old woman living in the eastern city of Hangzhou, visited eight pharmacies on Thursday, but they were sold out of ibuprofen and Tylenol as well as Shuanghuanglian and Lianhua Qingwen, two traditional Chinese herbal remedies promoted as covid treatments by government.
“In a pharmacy, the employee simply put in my hands two boxes of medicine that I had not heard of and told me to buy them because they were all gone,” said she said. “There have been so many changes in epidemic prevention policy over the past few years that have caught people off guard. Eventually, we reacted to any hint of change with full preparations.
The demand for self-medication products and advice has led to the proliferation of questionable health advice – and some misinformation – online.
A Marxist scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Jin Riguang, recommended chewing Sichuan pepper, an anesthetic spice, and drinking ginger and licorice tea. Canned peaches and lemons have sold out on many platforms after being promoted as home remedies.
State media has warned people that washing your mouth with salt water and drinking high-alcohol distilled spirits does not kill the coronavirus or prevent infection.
Even advice to stay hydrated had to be accompanied by reminders not to overdo it, after Chinese state media reported that a coronavirus patient in southwest Chengdu had poisoned herself with water while following official advice to drink plenty to aid recovery.
An electrolyte sports drink called ‘Alienergy’ made by Genki Forest has sold out after sales on some online platforms rose 2,000% in one day following rumors that it provides better hydration than water.
Officials have warned against panic buying, which could inadvertently prevent drugs and other valuable health products from reaching patients in time. A proponent of traditional Chinese medicines, Zhang Boli, advised against being anxious because being in a bad mood could reduce immunity.
Public unease has deepened, however, as the true scale of the outbreak is unclear. After the sudden removal of requirements for regular PCR tests, authorities said they were no longer able to track positive tests and removed daily reports of asymptomatic tests. A new system for classifying and reporting covid deaths would have made it harder to include cases.
As infections rise, China stops counting asymptomatic cases
Some online services that until a few days ago showed detailed breakdowns of infections have recently stopped updating. A search for the latest epidemic data on Baidu, China’s largest search engine, now counts the number of people who sought medical advice using the website’s online consultation service, rather than the number of infections.
Difficulties in finding accurate, up-to-date information meant many people relied on word-of-mouth to gauge how fast the virus was spreading. For some, the wave hit all at once.
“I really had no sense of crisis last week and didn’t think about getting drugs when others were starting to get drugs,” said Tim Liao, 30, a design consultant working in Shanghai. Liao felt fever and fatigue on Monday night and regretted not buying medicine in advance. Online stores were sold out. Trembling with discomfort, he felt unable to go to the pharmacy. Friends sent him the medicine the next day.
In virus hotspots, the self-enforced lockdown has put even greater strain on logistics networks than previous state-imposed lockdowns. Not only are food delivery and online retailers facing large numbers of orders, but many drivers are also testing positive. Companies like Eleme and Meituan are hiring new workers in big cities to overcome traffic jams.
Liao said it was inevitable that China would change its covid policy, but he suspects the government has done little to prepare. “The only thing they did was drop the testing so we don’t know how many people got the virus,” he said.
The government on Wednesday acknowledged a shortage of rapid antigen tests, which had not been widely used before last week’s announcement. Amid growing demand, scalpers are reselling kits for high prices online.
To combat public unease, official propaganda backtracked. After months of pointing out the severity of coronavirus infections to justify increasingly unpopular lockdowns, Chinese health experts are now trying to allay public fears of falling ill.
Zhong Nanshan, a top respiratory disease expert and government adviser, said on Thursday that the coronavirus should now be considered “a novel coronavirus cold”, not pneumonia, noting that the death rate for the omicron variant was now 0.1% and comparable to seasonal flu.
Allaying public fears is also an attempt to ensure that limited medical resources are not spent treating non-serious cases. Authorities have warned the public against calling emergency services until they are in serious need of professional treatment.
A Chinese government-funded analysis by researchers in Hong Kong published this week found that full reopening in all parts of the county could lead to nearly 1.1 million deaths and an increase in demand for hospital treatment that would be 1 .5 to 2.5 times the capacity. With a gradual opening that gave 85% of the population time to receive a fourth booster and 60% to have access to antivirals, the estimated number of deaths fell to around 600,000.
Such dire predictions have led many Chinese families to err on the side of caution.
Luo Xia, 35, a translator who lives in Shenzhen, began placing orders for herself and her family in mid-November when she first suspected a policy change was imminent. “I was worried about my parents, especially my mum. She doesn’t have good lungs,” she said.
When health authorities released a 10-point plan on Dec. 7 to ease covid controls, Luo again turned to online platforms to search for ibuprofen, but couldn’t immediately find any. She eventually placed orders from an online store that was selling the pills for three times the normal price. It took eight days for the cargo to be dispatched, instead of the usual two or three.
“You really have to make the right predictions and react quickly,” she said, adding that even she didn’t expect the covid rules to be relaxed so quickly. “The best solution would be for the central government to tell local governments what to prepare in advance. But it seems that some local governments haven’t made any preparations.
Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.
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