- 2 billion trips expected during the lunar new year
- The spread of the virus from cities to vulnerable villages
- The World Health Organization says China’s response has been a challenge due to a lack of data
- China’s grand reopening marred by Japan, Korea’s row
BEIJING (Reuters) – People in China worried on Thursday about the spread of COVID-19 among elderly relatives as they planned to return to their home cities for holidays that the World Health Organization warns could spark a raging outbreak.
The Lunar New Year holiday, which officially begins on January 21, comes after China last month abandoned a strict anti-virus regime of mass lockdowns that led to widespread frustration and turned into historic protests.
This sudden shift has unleashed COVID on a population of 1.4 billion who lack natural immunity, having been protected from the virus since it first broke out in late 2019, and includes many elderly people who have not been fully vaccinated.
The outbreak has spread from major cities in China to rural areas with poor medical resources, overwhelming some hospitals and crematoriums.
With official data from China scarce, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday it would be difficult to manage the virus during a holiday period that is the world’s largest annual migration of people.
Further warnings from China’s top health experts for people to avoid elderly relatives during the holidays were sounded on the most-read item on China’s Twitter-like Weibo on Thursday.
“This is a very relevant suggestion, go home…or put the health of the elderly first,” one user wrote. Another user said that he did not dare to visit his grandmother and would leave gifts for her on the doorstep.
“It’s almost New Year’s and I’m afraid she’s lonely,” the user wrote.
More than two billion trips are expected to pass through China during the broader Lunar New Year period, which began on January 7 and lasts for 40 days, according to the Ministry of Transportation. This is double last year’s trips and 70% of those seen in 2019 before the pandemic hit the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
“I will stay at home and avoid going to very crowded places,” said Chen, 27, a Beijing-based documentary filmmaker who plans to visit her hometown in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
Chen said she would disinfect her hands before meeting elderly relatives, like her grandmother, who managed to avoid infection.
Criticism of the lack of data
The World Health Organization and foreign governments have criticized China for not being forthcoming about the scale and severity of the outbreak, which has led many countries to impose restrictions on Chinese travellers.
China has reported five or fewer deaths per day for the past month, numbers that don’t match the long lines seen at funeral homes. The country did not report coronavirus death data for Tuesday and Wednesday.
Liang Wannian, head of the NHS’ COVID expert panel, told reporters that deaths could only be counted accurately after the epidemic was over.
Although international health experts have projected at least 1 million COVID-related deaths this year, China has reported just over 5,000 cases since the pandemic began, a fraction of what other countries reported when they removed restrictions.
Looking beyond the death toll, investors are betting that reopening China will reinvigorate the $17 trillion economy suffering its lowest growth rate in nearly half a century.
That lifted Asian stocks to a seven-month high, boosted China’s currency in the yuan against the US dollar, and boosted global oil prices in hopes of boosting demand from the world’s largest importer.
China’s growth is likely to rebound to 4.9% in 2023, according to a Reuters poll of economists published Thursday. Gross domestic product is likely to grow just 2.8% in 2022 as lockdowns hit activity and confidence, according to the poll, sharply reversing 8.4% growth in 2021.
After three years in isolation from the outside world, China on Sunday removed quarantine mandates for inbound visitors in a move expected to eventually spur overseas travel.
But concerns about the outbreak in China have prompted more than a dozen countries to demand negative COVID test results from people arriving from China.
Among them, South Korea and Japan also have limited flights and require tests upon arrival, with passengers who test positive being sent to quarantine.
In a deepening rift between the two regional rivals, China has in turn stopped issuing short-term visas and suspended transit visa exemptions for South Korean and Japanese nationals.
Travel data firm ForwardKeys said on Thursday that despite Beijing lifting travel restrictions, outbound flight bookings from China were at just 15% of pre-pandemic levels in the week after the country announced it would reopen its borders.
Lower airline capacity, higher airfares, new pre-flight COVID-19 testing requirements by many countries, and a backlog of passport and visa applications pose challenges as the industry looks to recover, said Olivier Ponti, vice president of ForwardKeys Insights Olivier Ponti, in a statement.
Hong Kong Airlines said Thursday that it does not expect to return to capacity until mid-2024.
Additional reporting by Bernard Orr, Liz Lee, Eduardo Baptista and Jing Wang in Beijing; Written by John Geddy. Editing by Lincoln Feast and Nick McPhee
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