China is scrambling to deal with a surge in coronavirus cases after Beijing's retreat from a zero-COVID policy. With much of the population unvaccinated, there are fears of mutations, high fatalities, and economic upset.
Beijing's abrupt decision to relax stringent COVID-19 measures has raised fears that widespread infections among a largely unvaccinated population could lead to between a million and 2.1 million deaths.
What's the situation at present?
Authorities are expanding intensive care units and, with a view to stopping the spread of the disease in hospitals, building fever screening clinics.
Cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Wenzhou have reported adding hundreds of such clinics in the past week alone, having converted some of them from sports facilities.
Some experts estimate that some 60% of China's 1.4 billion people — about 10% of the global population — could be infected with COVID-19 in the coming months. There are fears the virus could spread more widely during next month's Lunar New Year holiday when many people travel.
Chinese cities see COVID-19 surge
A large proportion of the population is unvaccinated and there is little hybrid immunity from the virus itself. There are 8 million unvaccinated Chinese people over the age of 80, and more than 160 million people have diabetes.
China's National Health Commission on Tuesday reported 2,722 new cases for the previous 24 hours, compared with 1,995 a day earlier.
There was only a slight increase in reported deaths, five in total, taking China's total death toll from COVID-19 to 5,242.
While those figures are relatively low by global standards, it's thought that the actual numbers are far higher. Health authorities in China count only those who died directly from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, excluding deaths blamed on underlying conditions that raise the risk of serious illness.
Unofficial reports from victims' families and people working in the funeral business suggest a widespread wave of new coronavirus fatalities, with reports that crematoriums across the country are at capacity.
United States voices concern
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Monday that any time the virus was spreading, it had the potential to mutate and could "pose a threat to people everywhere."
"We've seen that over the course of many different permutations of this virus and certainly another reason why we are so focused on helping countries around the world address COVID," he said."
Price also noted the economic impact a rampant spread of COVID-19 could have on China and the wider world.
"The toll of the virus is of concern to the rest of the world given the size of China's GDP, given the size of China's economy," Price told a daily briefing at the State Department.
Investors have welcomed China's shift away from the zero-COVID strategy as good news for the world economy in the longer run. However, there are more immediate worries about the near-term impact of surging case numbers on trade and industry.