SHANGHAI, Jan 7 (Reuters) – China on Saturday marked the first day of “chun yun”, the 40-day Lunar New Year travel period known before the pandemic as the world’s biggest annual human migration, bracing for a huge increase of travelers and the spread of COVID-19 infections.
This Lunar New Year public holiday, which officially runs from January 21, will be the first of 2020 without restrictions on domestic travel.
Over the past month, China has seen the dramatic dismantling of its “zero COVID” regime after historic protests against a policy that included frequent testing, restricted movement, mass lockdowns and severe damage to the world’s No. 2 economy.
Investors hope the reopening will eventually revive a $17 trillion economy that is suffering its slowest growth in nearly half a century.
But the drastic changes have exposed many of China’s 1.4 billion people to the virus for the first time, triggering a wave of infections that has swamped some hospitals, emptied pharmacy shelves of drugs and caused long lines outside crematoriums.
The Department of Transport said on Friday it expects more than 2 billion passengers to take trips over the next 40 days, up 99.5% year-on-year and reaching 70.3% of journeys in 2019.
There was a mixed reaction online to the news, with some comments welcoming the freedom to return to their hometowns and celebrate the Lunar New Year with family for the first time in years.
However, many others said they would not travel this year, with the common theme being the worry of infecting elderly relatives.
“I dare not go back to my hometown for fear of bringing the poison back,” said one such comment on Twitter-like Weibo.
There are widespread fears that the large migration of urban workers to their hometowns will lead to a spike in infections in smaller towns and rural areas that are less equipped with intensive care beds and ventilators to deal with them.
Authorities say they are boosting local medical services, opening more rural fever clinics and creating a “green channel” for high-risk patients, especially the elderly with co-morbidities, to be transferred from villages directly to hospitals in the country. -high level.
“China’s rural areas are vast, the population is large, and the per capita medical resources are relatively insufficient,” National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said on Saturday.
“It is necessary to provide convenient services, speed up the vaccination of the elderly in rural areas and the construction of ordinary defense lines.”
THE PEAK OF INFECTION HAS BEEN REACHED
Some analysts now say the current wave of infections may have already peaked.
Hernan Tsui, an analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing, cited several online studies showing that rural areas are already more widely exposed to COVID infections than originally thought, with peak infections already reached in most regions, noting, that “there is not much difference between urban and rural areas”.
On Sunday, China will reopened its border with Hong Kong and will also remove the requirement for travelers coming from overseas to be quarantined. This effectively opens the door for many Chinese to travel abroad for the first time since the borders were closed nearly three years ago, without fear of being quarantined upon return.
Jillian Sin, who has three children and lives in Hong Kong, said she was “incredibly excited” about the opening of the border, especially as it meant it would be easier to see her family in Beijing.
“For us, opening the border means my children can finally meet their grandparents for the first time since the pandemic began,” she said. “Two of our children never got to see their grandfather so we can’t wait for them to meet.”
The rise in cases in China has caused concern internationally, and more than a dozen countries are now requiring travelers from China to be tested for COVID. The World Health Organization said Wednesday that China’s COVID data is underrepresenting the number of hospitalizations and deaths from the disease.
Chinese officials and state media have defended their handling of the outbreak, downplaying the severity of the wave and condemning overseas travel requirements for its residents.
On Saturday in Hong Kong, people who had made an appointment had to wait in line for about 90 minutes at a center for PCR tests needed to travel to countries including mainland China.
TREATMENT OF FRONT
For most of the pandemic, China has poured resources into an extensive PCR testing program to track and trace COVID-19 cases, but the focus is now shifting to vaccines and treatments.
In Shanghai, for example, the city government on Friday announced an end to free PCR tests for residents starting January 8.
A circular issued by four government ministries on Saturday signaled a reallocation of financial resources for treatment, outlining a plan for public finances to subsidize 60 percent of treatment costs by March 31.
Meanwhile, sources said Reuters that China is in talks with Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) to secure a license that will allow domestic drugmakers to manufacture and distribute a generic version of the US firm’s anti-virus COVID drug Paxlovid in China.
Many Chinese are trying to buy the medicine abroad and sent it to China.
On the vaccine front, China’s CanSino Biologics Inc (6185.HK) announced that it has begun trial production of its COVID mRNA booster vaccine, known as CS-2034.
China relies on nine domestically developed vaccines approved for use, including inactivated vaccines, but none adapted to target the highly portable variant Omicron and its offshoots currently in circulation.
The country’s overall vaccination rate is above 90%, but the rate for adults who have received booster shots drops to 57.9% and to 42.3% for those aged 80 and over, according to government figures released last month .
China reported three new deaths from COVID on the mainland on Friday, bringing the official death toll from the virus since the start of the pandemic to 5,267, one of the lowest in the world.
International health experts believe Beijing’s narrow definition of COVID deaths does not reflect the true number, and some predict more than a million deaths this year.
Reporting by Casey Hall in Shanghai, Julie Zhu in Hong Kong and Kevin Huang Additional reporting by Jindong Zhang Editing by Tony Munro and Frances Carey
Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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