Life is almost back to normal in much of China. In mid-March, the country reported zero locally transmitted cases of COVID-19 for the first time. Since then, only six of such infections have been reported, only one of them in Wuhan.
New infections now mostly come from outside China: More than 500 cases have been confirmed in incoming air passengers since the 18th of March. As a consequence, China banned virtually all foreigners from entering the country and required all returning Chinese to be quarantined for two weeks, whether coming by air or over land. But the incredibly low number of people infected by COVID-19 may be deceptive. In its tally, China’s National Health Commission does not include people who test positive for the virus but have no symptoms, and local authorities are reportedly suppressing information on new infections to meet the target of zero local cases.
Economists predict China’s gross domestic product may shrink 9,9% in the first quarter of this year, the worst contraction since 1976 and with a yearly contraction of 6,8% against a predicted growth of 6%. With Europe and the United States wrestling with their own epidemics, demand for China’s manufactured goods has collapsed aside from masks and medical equipment and supplies. Recurring COVID-19 outbreaks in China would compound the damage and would make more probable a global recession.
The Chinese strategy is aimed at buying time until a vaccine will be available. Trials are expected to last at least through the end of this year. Dozens of other vaccine studies are underway around the world.
Officials are relaxing restrictions very slowly and methodically. Many restaurants at first reopened with shortened hours and for a limited number of customers; then openings were back to normal. Primary and secondary schools in several provinces have reopened, but only in communities free of the disease, and schools must check students’ temperatures and watch for symptoms.
Universities, where students from around the country mix, remain closed, with classes taught online. Events that draw crowds are still banned or discouraged. Live music venues and gyms in many cities remain closed. There are temperature checks at subway entrances and factory gates.
A number of local governments had allowed cinemas to reopen, but last week the national government decided it was too early and closed all theatres for the time being. People keep their distance in public and at work. Millions continue to work from home.
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Sinologist and Chief Analyst on Chinese Affairs at Nato Defense College Foundation. Foreign affairs writer for international magazines and publications.