As China rapidly dismantles its Covid zero measures that have gone on for almost three years, consumers are feeling a number of major impacts. Notably, fever-reducing drugs and rapid antigen test kits are in short supply through both online and offline channels, especially in major Chinese cities. Backlogs in courier services, delays in food delivery, and even the accumulation of trash in neighborhoods are now also being witnessed in Beijing, one of the first batches of cities seeing wide infection, and a growing number of other cities.  

Last week, Chinese authorities began loosening the country’s stringent Covid-19 policies, which have helped keep infections low since the initial pandemic outbreak but have also led to reduced individual movement and shocks to the economy. In the latest sign of change, China’s National Health Commission announced on Wednesday that it will no longer count asymptomatic cases, saying accurate data is now impossible to capture given the reduction in mass testing. 

While some analysts are hopeful the shift in policy will help revive China’s economy and remove some of the recent supply chain disruptions in the country, consumers in major urban centers are experiencing a particularly bumpy period of adjustment.

Rush for fever drugs 

Drugs used to significantly reduce fevers, including Ibuprofen and Tylenol – as well as canned peaches and lemon-related foods that are rich in Vitamin C – are currently out of stock on online shopping platforms such as Taobao and JD.

The shortages have led consumers to explore creative ways to buy these essentials for the ongoing Covid-19 winter wave.

Early this week, some users on social e-commerce platform Xiaohongshu went viral for sharing a little-known method for buying fever and cold drugs from pharmacies in remote areas at the original price.  

One Xiaohongshu user claimed that people could easily get Ibuprofen when modifying their location on life services platform Meituan to counties in the southwest of China in provinces such as Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guangxi. They could then ask couriers to pick up the goods from the pharmacy and mail them to their home location, albeit with a delivery wait of two or three days.

While such a move allows people thousands of miles away to get the fever drugs that are now scarce in many Chinese cities, it has led to a succession of stock-runs in more remote areas.

Users were unable to search for content related to purchasing drugs in other places in Xiaohongshu from Tuesday afternoon, according to the Chinese media outlet Jiemian.  

Strict nationwide controls have been imposed on individuals buying antipyretic, cough, antiviral drugs and antibiotics since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, with authorities focusing on finding infected persons as early as possible. Anyone looking to purchase these medicines has been required since early 2020 to register their personal details with the pharmacy selling them. 

In January in Beijing, for example, new rules required purchasers of such drugs to undergo a nucleic acid test within 72 hours or receive a risk alert preventing them from entering public places.

Such curbs have dissuaded many from buying these drugs in the last two years, but with Covid infections now surging across the country, demand for the products has suddenly sky-rocketed.

Saya, who lives in Shanghai, told TechNode that a friend of hers working in Hong Kong has recently started to help people on the mainland who can’t buy over-the-counter drugs – including antigen test kits and cold medicine – from local pharmacies. The friend then packages the medicine up and sends the goods by courier to the buyers, who can expect to receive them in as little as two weeks for a shipping fee of around HK$ 200 ($26).

Meanwhile, Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported early this week as saying the panic buying among mainlanders has already affected the city, with local pharmacies also running low on fever-reducing drugs.

According to The Paper, Meituan’s medicine channel has launched a “city-wide drug search” feature in Beijing, Shanghai, and six other cities with soaring demand.

Delivery services under pressure

China’s sudden reopening has also presented on-demand delivery and courier service providers with multiple new challenges. 

In addition to the rush to buy fever-related drugs, consumers across the country have turned to online delivery services for daily necessities, with few willing to visit high-density locations such as supermarkets and shopping malls. In addition to this sudden uptick in demand, employees responsible for sorting and distribution at courier firms are themselves testing positive for Covid, causing staffing shortages.

As of Dec. 11, more than 400 distribution points nationwide were still closed, according to an official statement from the State Post Bureau.

More than 1,000 couriers temporarily mobilized by e-commerce giant JD arrived in Beijing on Wednesday, aiming to help ease delivery issues in the city. The company says hundreds more will follow this week.

Several Beijing residents told TechNode that they can still order take-out on Meituan and Alibaba’s Ele.me as usual, but that the delivery time is longer than before. – Some said that food deliveries that used to take an average of 40 minutes to receive now have a wait time of at least 90 minutes.

In an attempt to stabilize its services in Beijing, Meituan is reportedly hiring part-time couriers. Meanwhile, the food delivery has said it is providing couriers with antigen test kits, ibuprofen, and VC effervescent tablets in 23 cities.

For Alibaba-owned supermarket chain Freshippo, half of the clerical staff in Beijing have been reassigned to support positions like packing, with some store employees working part-time as delivery riders, local media outlet China Times reported on Tuesday.

Cheyenne Dong

Cheyenne Dong is a tech reporter now based in Shanghai. She covers e-commerce and retail, blockchain, and Web3. Connect with her via e-mail: cheyenne.dong[a]technode.com.