The coronavirus returned in force in December in the remote rural villages of southern China, then the wave of contaminations settled down, accrediting the thesis of a circulation of the virus before the lifting of the “zero COVID” policy.
In early December, Beijing suddenly abandoned three years of an ultra-restrictive so-called “zero COVID” policy. The unprecedented epidemic wave, wreaking havoc in overcrowded hospitals and overcrowded crematoriums, has been widely attributed to the sudden relaxation of health measures.
But in more than a dozen municipalities in Yunnan and other provinces of rural China, where AFP visited, the peak of contamination seems to have been reached earlier than expected, between mid-December and the first January week.
In the Jingmai Mountains, where a handful of small hamlets back onto the slopes of tea crops, doctor Zhong Qingfang reports that the number of cases peaked around December 20.
“No one” was spared, says Ms Zhong, who continued to work when she herself was infected.
But Wednesday evening, in the waiting room of his clinic, only three elderly patients are seated connected to an infusion, clearly showing that the crowd has dropped and with it, the contaminations.
Other rural health centers in the eastern provinces of Shandong and Anhui also appear less overwhelmed than residents reported two weeks ago.
The fact that the virus has already circulated to the hinterland suggests that we are reaching “the end of the current wave in China”, says the president of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection , Paul Tambyah.
“There are good indications (that the cases had started to increase at the end of November,” Tambyah told AFP.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also believes that the current wave “started long before the easing of the ‘zero COVID’ policy”.
For Paul Tambyah, the acceleration of the virus even before the easing of restrictions represents in fact “the most likely explanation for the sudden abandonment” of this strategy, at the beginning of December.
At the Mayidui health center in Yunnan, signs direct visitors to a clinic for fever patients, while a bright red sign warns you are in a ‘zone for positive cases’.
But no patient in sight.
For Tan, a Chinese medicine practitioner, the change is drastic. At the height of the new wave, a few days after January 1, she and her colleagues were seeing up to 80 COVID patients a day.
In another village in Yunnan, the only doctor Luo Yongping told AFP that “about half” of the inhabitants have already been infected.
“The peak was reached a week ago,” he explains, lamenting the depletion of supplies of drugs to treat the symptoms of the virus.
Most of the people AFP spoke to have been vaccinated.
But Xi Chen, a public health expert at Yale University, points to “the rapid erosion of vaccine effectiveness” in rural areas of China, as “most people received their last dose a year ago. year”.
For him, the “rapid and unprecedented spread of COVID” is explained by the low immunity of the population.
Towards a second wave?
Chinese President Xi Jinping said he was worried Thursday about the epidemic situation in the countryside, where tens of millions of Chinese are flocking for the Lunar New Year celebrations.
Medical staff are already on high alert for a possible second wave.
Tan, from Mayidui Hospital, says staff have prepared kits including antigen tests and medicine for nearby villages.
But in areas where AFP has visited, few wear masks and many downplay the severity of the virus.
In a wisp of a cigarette, Zhang, a trader on Jingmai Mountain, compares COVID to the flu. “We would have caught colds in the winter anyway,” he says.
“Many, many people have been infected,” observes a woman who runs a roadside stall in the wine village of Xinghuoshan. “It’s not so bad”.
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