BEIJING, CHINA — The true scale of COVID-19 infections in China is now “impossible” to track, the country’s top health body said Wednesday, as officials warned of a rapid spread in Beijing after the country abruptly dropped its zero-tolerance policy.
China last week loosened restrictions for mass testing and quarantine after nearly three years of attempting to stamp out the virus, prompting officially reported infections to fall quickly from the all-time highs recorded last month.
And with testing no longer required for much of the country, China’s National Health Commission on Wednesday admitted its numbers no longer reflected reality.
“Many asymptomatic people are no longer participating in nucleic acid testing, so it is impossible to accurately grasp the actual number of asymptomatic infected people,” the NHC said in a statement.
The statement comes after Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said the capital’s new infections were “rapidly growing”, according to a state media readout.
Chinese leaders are determined to press ahead with opening up, with Beijing’s tourism authorities saying on Tuesday that it would resume tour groups in and out of the capital.
But the country is facing a surge in cases it is ill-equipped to manage, with millions of vulnerable elderly still not fully vaccinated and underfunded hospitals lacking the resources to deal with an expected influx of infected patients.
And as the country steers a tricky path out of its zero-COVID policy towards living with the virus, many with symptoms have opted to self-medicate at home.
Residents of Beijing have complained of sold-out cold medicines and long lines at pharmacies, while Chinese search giant Baidu said that searches for fever-reducing Ibuprofen had risen 430 pe rcent over the past week.
Soaring demand for rapid antigen tests and medications has created a black market with astronomical prices, while buyers resort to sourcing the goods from “dealers” whose contacts are being passed around WeChat groups.
Authorities are cracking down, with market regulators hitting one business in Beijing with a 300,000 yuan ($43,000) fine for selling overpriced test kits, the local Beijing News reported Tuesday.
And in a sea change in a country where infection with the virus was once taboo and recovered patients faced discrimination, people are taking to social media to show off their test results and give detailed descriptions of their experiences being sick.
“When my body temperature went past 37.2 degrees, I began to add some sugar and salt to my lemon water,” Beijing-based Xiaohongshu social site user “Nina” wrote in one account intended as advice for those not yet infected.
“I’ve been resurrected!!” wrote another account owner in the caption to a photo showing a row of five positive antigen tests and one negative.