Covid surge spooks Beijing residents, disrupts government
People queue to buy Covid rapid antigen test kits before entering a hospital in Beijing, China, on Wednesday. Covid infections are surging in Beijing, disrupting official government work and keeping people at home after authorities made an about-turn in their policy of keeping virus cases under control. (Bloomberg photo) Covid infections are surging in Beijing, disrupting official government work and keeping people at home after authorities made an about-turn in their strict policy of managing virus cases.
The National Bureau of Statistics said it will cancel a monthly press briefing scheduled for Thursday in Beijing, where it was due to release key economic indicators for November.
China’s abrupt exit from Covid Zero — during winter and with an under-vaccinated elderly population — has caught many off guard, raising concerns of major disruption to economic life in coming weeks and months. High frequency data such as online searches for the word “fever” and subway ridership figures suggest the outbreak is severe in the capital Beijing.
The NBS said the press conference, where officials usually discuss the economic data and take questions from reporters, was cancelled “according to work arrangement”, without elaborating. The data for industrial output, retail sales, unemployment and other indicators will instead be released on the bureau’s website at 10am local time Thursday, along with official comments, it said in a statement.
Economists expect the figures to show a worsening in the economy in November even before the current Covid surge. Growth is expected to slow to just 3.2% this year, which would be the weakest pace since the 1970s barring 2020’s pandemic slump.
The Central Economic Work Conference, where officials set economic goals for the coming year, will go ahead this week in Beijing, with leaders opting not to postpone the gathering as Covid infections surge across the capital, people familiar with the matter said. Bloomberg News had earlier reported the meeting would be postponed.
The conference, which is usually attended by President Xi Jinping, is expected to signal more fiscal and monetary policy support for the economy. The Politburo, the Communist Party’s top decision-making body, made a decisive shift toward a pro-growth stance at its December meeting.
Financial markets have rallied on the expectation that China’s reopening will spur consumer and business spending, with the benchmark CSI 300 Index of mainland shares jumping nearly 13% from an Oct 31 low.
Several major banks, like Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd, Nomura Holdings Inc and Morgan Stanley, have also upgraded their forecasts for economic growth next year, predicting a boost in confidence.
Even so, the next few months are highly uncertain as workers become infected, business activity slows down, factories struggle to secure supplies and people stay away from restaurants and shops.
Delivery services have already hit a snag in Beijing as courier drivers fall ill. The State Post Bureau said while most of the delivery network had resumed operation, more than 400 outlets in the capital city and some other places remain closed. There’s “big pressure” on delivery in the last leg of the journey, it said in a Tuesday statement.
The government scrapped much of its Covid restrictions within just a few weeks, allowing Covid-infected cases to isolate at home and canceling testing requirements for entering most public venues. That’s made it harder to gauge how widespread the outbreaks are since official tallies have plunged.
Analysts are increasingly turning to alternative indicators, such as online word searches for Covid-related symptoms like fever. Researchers from a medical university in Anhui province last year found a strong correlation between the word searches and the number of confirmed cases.
Data from China’s popular search engine Baidu shows searches for the word “fever” surged 823% in Beijing since the beginning of December, compared with a 303% rise in Shanghai and 437% in Guangzhou. Nationwide, the increase was 679% during the period.
Beijing residents are avoiding going out as infections spike. The number of subway trips made in the capital city over the past few weeks has slumped at a faster pace than in other major cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou. Mobility is near the trough reached in May when the city was partially locked down to contain an outbreak at the time.
Beijing, Chongqing in the southwest and Zhengzhou in central China have the most empty roads among major cities in the country, according to Baidu’s data, reflecting the severity of infections in those areas. Congestion in Beijing, which has the highest car registrations in the nation, dropped to just 36% of its level in January 2021, according to figures as of Tuesday.
The tech hub of Shenzhen, which neighbors Hong Kong, the port city of Ningbo in the east and Shanghai seem to be less affected as their road traffic is hovering at normal levels.
The Covid wave is also rippling through the nation’s financial industry, with currency volumes falling as traders call in sick and banks activating backup plans to keep operations running smoothly. Half of the currency traders at one Chinese bank in Beijing were off sick as of Monday.
China’s banking regulator urged lenders to ensure operations at branches continue to reduce the impact of the pandemic on the economy. Bank outlets that aren’t located in high-risk areas are prohibited from halting face-to-face businesses without solid reasons, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission said in a statement Wednesday
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