Nearly three years after it was first identified in China, the coronavirus is now spreading through the vast country.
Experts have predicted difficult months ahead for the country’s 1.4 billion people.
China’s unyielding “zero-Covid” approach aimed to isolate all infected people. But an abrupt reopening, which was announced without warning on December 7 in the wake of anti-lockdown protests, has caught the nation under-vaccinated and short on hospital capacity.
Experts at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle and Hong Kong University have forecast between one and two million deaths in China next year.
Predicting the mortality rate has proven tricky throughout the pandemic, since it is influenced by varied factors and China presents an especially complicated case because of opaque information sharing.
It is not clear exactly how large the current outbreak is, as China has reduced testing and stopped reporting most mild cases.
But in cities and towns around Baoding and Langfang, in Hebei province, an area that was among the first to face an unchecked outbreak, Associated Press reporters saw hospital intensive care units overwhelmed by patients, and ambulances being turned away.
Across the country, widespread reports of absences from work, shortages of fever-reducing medicine, and staff working overtime at crematoria suggest the virus is widespread.
China belongs to a small club of countries that managed to stop most domestic transmission of the virus in 2020, but it was the last to end restrictions.
Experiences of ending these measures vary: Singapore and New Zealand achieved high vaccination rates and bolstered medical systems during restrictions, and reopened relatively smoothly.
In Hong Kong, where the Omicron variant overcame defences while many elderly people were unvaccinated, suffered a disruptive Covid-19 wave in 2022.
Nearly 11,000 people died of the illness this year in the city of 7.4 million, with 95% of them older than 60, according to Hong Kong’s department of health.
Data from the city showed a 15% fatality rate for those older than 80 and unvaccinated, said Jin Dong-yan, a virology expert at Hong Kong University.