- The peak of the COVID wave lasts 2-3 months – epidemiologist
- Older people in rural areas are particularly at risk
- People’s mobility indicators are rising, but are yet to fully recover
- One case of the XBB subvariant found in China
BEIJING, Jan 13 (Reuters) – The peak of China’s COVID-19 wave is expected to last two to three months and will soon sweep across the vast countryside where medical resources are relatively scarce, a top Chinese epidemiologist said.
Infections are expected to increase in rural areas as hundreds of millions travel to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holidays, which officially begin on January 21, known before the pandemic as the world’s largest annual human migration.
Last month, China abruptly abandoned a strict anti-virus regime of mass lockdowns that fueled historic protests across the country in late November, and finally reopened its borders last Sunday.
The abrupt lifting of restrictions unleashed the virus on China’s 1.4 billion people, more than a third of whom live in regions where infections have already passed their peak, according to state media.
But the worst of the outbreak is not yet over, warned Zeng Guang, a former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a report published in local Caixin media on Thursday.
“Our priority focus was on big cities. It’s time to focus on rural areas,” Zeng was quoted as saying.
He said large numbers of people in the province, where medical facilities are relatively poor, have been left behind, including the elderly, the sick and the disabled.
The World Health Organization this week also warned of the risks arising from holiday travel.
The UN agency said China is reporting significantly fewer deaths from COVID, although it is now providing more information about its outbreak.
“Since the outbreak of the epidemic, China has shared relevant information and data with the international community in an open, transparent and responsible manner,” Foreign Ministry official Wu Xi told reporters.
Chinese virologists said on Friday they had found one infection with the Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5, which was described by WHO scientists as the most transmissible subvariant to date after its rapid spread in the United States in December. There is no evidence yet that it is more severe.
Health officials have reported five or fewer deaths a day for the past month, numbers that do not match the long lines seen at funeral homes and the body bags seen leaving crowded hospitals.
China has not reported data on COVID deaths since Monday. Officials said in December that they planned for monthly rather than daily updates going forward.
Although international health experts predicted at least 1 million COVID-related deaths this year, China has reported just over 5,000 since the start of the pandemic, one of the lowest death rates in the world.
Concerns about data transparency were among the factors that led more than a dozen countries to require pre-departure COVID tests of travelers arriving from China.
Beijing, which has closed its borders to the rest of the world for three years and still requires all visitors to be tested before they travel, objects to the curbs.
Wu said the accusations by individual parties were “unreasonable, unscientific and baseless”.
Tensions escalated this week with South Korea and Japan, with China retaliating by suspending short-term visas for their citizens. The two countries are also restricting flights, testing travelers from China on arrival and quarantining those who test positive.
Parts of China were returning to normal life.
Especially in the bigger cities, the residents are increasingly on the movewhich indicates a gradual, if for now slow, recovery of consumption and economic activity.
An immigration official said on Friday that an average of 490,000 daily trips had been made in and out of China since China reopened on Jan. 8, just 26 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
Singapore-based Chu Wenhong was among those who finally got it reunited with his parents for the first time in three years.
“They both contracted COVID and are quite old. I actually feel very lucky as it wasn’t too serious for them, but their health is not very good,” she said.
While China’s reopening gave push to financial assets globally, policymakers around the world worry that this could revive inflationary pressures.
December though commercial data released on Friday, provided reasons to be cautious about the pace of China’s recovery.
Jin Chaofeng, whose company exports rattan outdoor furniture, said it has no plans to expand or hire employees for 2023.
“With the lifting of COVID restrictions, domestic demand is expected to improve but not exports,” he said.
Data next week is expected to show China’s economy grew 2.8 percent in 2022, the second-slowest since 1976, the final year of Mao Zedong’s decade-long Cultural Revolution, according to a Reuters poll.
Some analysts say last year’s blockade will leave lasting scars on China, including by making the situation worse an already bleak demographic outlook.
Growth has since rebounded to 4.9% this year, still well below the pre-pandemic trend.
Additional reporting from newsrooms in Beijing and Shanghai; Written by Marius Zacharias; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan
Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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