An elderly woman receives a vaccine in Shanghai on December 15, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Beijing: Shanghai will shut most schools again from Monday, reverting to an element of China’s old virus playbook as the rapid dismantling of the country’s pandemic restrictions spurs an explosion in cases.

Students in all classes except for those in middle and high school who will graduate next summer must study at home from next week, the education authority of China’s largest city said in a WeChat post on Saturday. Kindergartens will also be closed, according to the announcement.

The order was a rare act of caution from officials who have spent recent weeks rolling back almost all of the curbs that kept COVID-19 at bay over the past three years. Infections have surged in Beijing, where the virus is now rampant, and appears to be ticking higher in Shanghai, where residents have gone from knowing few people who’ve had the virus, to whole families being infected.

Alongside the scrapping of COVID Zero, China has pivoted its rhetoric. Cast as a lethal threat for most of the pandemic, COVID is now being likened to the flu and common cold by officials and advisers as it spreads unchecked.

The country is on track to experience three infection waves from now through mid-March, according to Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In remarks reported by the Beijing Youth Daily, Wu said 10% to 30% of China’s population is likely to be infected.

The first wave will mainly hit cities, Wu said. The upcoming Lunar New Year break — often dubbed the world’s biggest temporary migration as workers head home for the holiday, which is akin to Christmas — could then fuel the spread, Wu is quoted as saying, with the third wave to start in late February, when people return to factories and other workplaces across the country.

The scale of the current outbreak is already becoming difficult to quantify, with China dismantling its vast PCR testing apparatus and no longer counting asymptomatic cases, which typically took up the bulk of the tally. There are questions, too, over the official death toll, with reports of COVID fatalities coming out of Beijing funeral parlors and crematoriums. Still, China hasn’t recorded a Covid death since December 4.

While projections vary, China could see almost 1 million deaths from COVID as it finally reopens, according to a report by researchers in Hong Kong on Thursday. Modelling by the US-based Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation shows fatalities could top 1 million through 2023 as the abrupt reversal on Covid Zero results in a surge.