“People don’t go out and my friends are afraid to go down,” he said. “I also had to recuperate for seven or eight days before I dared to go down for a walk.”

The peak of Covid in China is yet to come, and because severe disease takes time to develop, the full impact of the outbreak may not be clear for a while, especially among older people, said Dr. Siddharth Sridhar, a virologist. clinician from the University of Hong Kong.

“Usually the youngest and most mobile population is the one that gets infected first,” he said. «Then it goes to nursing homes, and that’s where it does most of its damage.»

Sridhar, Owens and many other experts say «covid zero» was the right strategy for China early in the pandemic, when vaccines were not available. But the country struggled away from it largely because of low vaccination rates among the older population, then lifted the restrictions in one fell swoop after protests. Without a controlled transition, there was no time to ramp up vaccinations, strengthen intensive care infrastructure, or expand the availability of antiviral treatments like Paxlovid.

The result will be deadly, according to Sridhar.

“That means basically there will be a very large outbreak, a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life,” he said.

Wuhan resident Xie Zhicong said he and all his family members, apart from his grandmother, had been infected.

Xie, a 25-year-old salesman, said it was hard to see a doctor when he went to the hospital for an examination last week.

“There were no doctors or nurses, because everyone had positive symptoms,” he said.

The hospital Xie visited did not respond to requests for comment on his claims. A pharmacist contacted at another Wuhan hospital declined to comment on the record.

People who have recovered, Xie said, are looking forward to life after three years of «zero-Covid» restrictions.

“Some of my friends are already buying tickets for a Lunar New Year trip to Thailand,” Xie said, referring to China’s biggest holiday of the year, which in 2023 falls on Jan. 22.

Travel service companies say international flight bookings on their websites have risen since China said on Tuesday it would resume issuing tourist passports for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Although many countries in places like Southeast Asia and Europe are eager for the return of high-spending visitors from China, which was the world’s largest outbound tourism market before the pandemic, some top destinations for Chinese travelers, including the United States, Japan and South Korea, have made Covid tests mandatory for arrivals in the country.

Chinese state media have criticized the restrictions as «discriminatory», while the European Union’s health agency said on Thursday that the additional measures for travelers from China were «unjustified». GISAIDa Germany-based public database, said this week that analysis of the latest genomic sequencing data shared by Chinese health officials showed that variants in China closely resemble those already circulating globally.

Although China is experiencing a massive outbreak as it did at the start of the pandemic, once it is over, the virus will not have many places to go, Sridhar said.

“This could be the last act of the pandemic in a way.”

Eric Baculinao Y hannah lee contributed.