- Two billion trips expected during Lunar New Year
- The virus spreads from cities to vulnerable towns
- WHO says China’s response is called into question by lack of data
- China’s grand reopening marred by Japan-Korea disputes
BEIJING, Jan 12 (Reuters) – People in China were concerned on Thursday about the possibility of spreading COVID-19 to elderly relatives as they planned to return to their hometowns for holidays that the World Health Organization warned would they could exacerbate a raging outbreak.
The Lunar New Year holiday, which officially begins on January 1. On January 21, it comes after China last month abandoned a strict anti-virus regime of mass lockdowns that sparked widespread frustration and turned into historic protests.
That abrupt U-turn unleashed COVID on a population of 1.4 billion that lacks natural immunity, having been protected from the virus since it first broke out in late 2019, and includes many elderly who are not fully vaccinated.
The outbreak spreading from China’s megacities to rural areas with weaker medical resources is overwhelming some hospitals and crematoriums.
With scant official data from China, the WHO said on Wednesday it would be challenging to control the virus during a holiday period considered the world’s largest annual migration of people.
Other warnings from top Chinese health experts for people to avoid elderly relatives during the holidays became the most read article on China’s Twitter-like Weibo on Thursday.
“This is a very pertinent suggestion, go back to hometown… or put the health of the elderly first,” wrote one user. Another user said that he did not dare to visit her grandmother and left gifts at the door.
“It’s almost New Year’s and I’m afraid she’s going to be lonely,” the user wrote.
More than two billion trips they are expected across China during the broader Lunar New Year period, which began on January 1. 7 and lasts for 40 days, according to the Ministry of Transport. That’s double last year’s trips and 70% of those seen in 2019 before the pandemic emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
“I will stay at home and avoid going to crowded places,” said Chen, a 27-year-old documentary filmmaker from Beijing who plans to visit her hometown in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
Chen said he would disinfect his hands before meeting elderly relatives, such as his grandmother, who managed to avoid infection.
CRITICAL MISSING DATA
The WHO and foreign governments have criticized China for not being forthright about the scale and severity of its outbreak, prompting several countries to impose restrictions on Chinese travelers.
China has been reporting five or fewer deaths a day for the past month, numbers that are inconsistent with the long lines seen at funeral homes. The country did not report data on COVID deaths on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Liang Wannian, head of a panel of COVID experts under the national health authority, told reporters that deaths could only be accurately counted after the pandemic ended.
Although international health experts have predicted at least a million COVID-related deaths this year, China has reported just over 5,000 since the pandemic began, a fraction of what other countries have reported when they lifted restrictions.
Looking beyond the death toll, investors are betting that China’s reopening will reinvigorate a $17 trillion economy suffering its slowest growth in nearly half a century.
that has raised Asian stocks hit a 7-month highstrengthened China’s yuan against the US dollar and boosted world oil prices hoping for a new demand from the world’s leading importer.
China’s growth is likely to recover to 4.9% in 2023, according to a Reuters poll of economists released on Thursday. GDP likely grew just 2.8% in 2022 as lockdowns weighed on activity and confidence, the survey found, halting growth sharply from 8.4% in 2021.
After three years of isolation from the outside world, China lifted quarantine mandates for inbound visitors on Sunday in a move that is expected to eventually spur outbound travel as well.
But concerns about the China outbreak have prompted more than a dozen countries to require negative COVID test results for people arriving from China.
Among them, South Korea and Japan also have limited flights and require tests upon arrival, and passengers who test positive are sent to quarantine.
In a deepening dispute between regional rivals, China, in turn, stopped issuing short-term visas and suspended transit visa waivers for citizens of South Korea and Japan.
Despite Beijing’s lifting of 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, the government said. Thursday travel data firm ForwardKeys.
Low airline capacity, high airfares, new pre-flight COVID-19 testing requirements by many countries and a backlog of passport and visa applications pose challenges as the industry seeks to recover, said the Vice President of ForwardKeys Insights, Olivier Ponti, in a statement.
Hong Kong Airlines said on Thursday that it does not expect to return to capacity until mid-2024.
Reporting by Bernard Orr, Liz Lee, Eduardo Baptista, and Jing Wang in Beijing; Written by John Geddie; Edited by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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