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 largest annual migration of people, bracing for a huge surge in travelers and the spread of COVID-19 infections
This Lunar New Year public holiday, which officially runs from January 1. 21, will be the first since 2020 without domestic travel restrictions.
Over the past month, China has seen the dramatic dismantlement of its “zero-COVID” regime following historic protests against a policy that included frequent testing, restricted movement, massive lockdowns and severe damage to the world’s No. 2 economy.
Investors hope the reopening will eventually reinvigorate a $17 trillion economy suffering its lowest growth in nearly half a century.
But the abrupt changes have exposed much of China’s 1.4 billion people to the virus for the first time, unleashing a wave of infections that is overwhelming some hospitals, emptying drug shelves at pharmacies and causing long lines at crematoria. .
China’s Ministry of Transport said on Friday that it expects more than 2 billion passengers to take trips in the next 40 days, up 99.5% year-on-year and reaching 70.3% of the 2019 travel figures.
Reaction to that news online was mixed, with some comments praising the freedom to return to their hometowns and celebrate Lunar New Year with family for the first time in years.
Many others, however, said they would not travel this year, with concerns of infecting elderly relatives a common theme.
“I dare not go back to my hometown, for fear of bringing the poison back,” said one such comment on Twitter-like Weibo.
There is widespread concern that the large migration of workers from cities back to their hometowns will lead to an increase in infections in smaller towns and rural areas less equipped with ICU beds and ventilators to treat them.
Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics, acknowledged that risk in a Friday note, but added that “in the big cities that make up much of China’s economy, the worst appears to be over.”
Ernan Cui, an analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing, cited several online surveys indicating that the current wave of infections may have already peaked in most regions, noting that “there wasn’t much difference between urban areas and rural”.
REOPENING OF BORDERS
Sunday marks the reopening of China’s border with Hong Kong and the end of China’s requirement for incoming international travelers to self-quarantine. That effectively opened the door for many Chinese to travel abroad for the first time since the borders were slammed nearly three years ago, without fear of having to self-quarantine upon their return.
More than a dozen countries are now requiring COVID tests for Chinese travelers as the World Health Organization said China’s official virus data failed to report the true extent of its outbreak.
Chinese officials and state media have defended its handling of the outbreak, downplaying the severity of the spike and decrying foreign travel requirements for its residents.
On Saturday in Hong Kong, people who had made an appointment had to queue for around 90 minutes at a center for the PCR tests needed to travel to countries including mainland China.
TREATMENT IN FOCUS
For much of the pandemic, China poured resources into a vast PCR testing program to track and trace COVID-19 cases, but now the focus is shifting to vaccines and treatment.
In Shanghai, for example, the city government announced on Friday the end of free PCR tests for residents from January 1. 8.
A circular released on Saturday by four government ministries signaled a reallocation of financial resources to treatment, outlining a plan for public finances to subsidize 60% of treatment costs until March 31.
Meanwhile, sources told Reuters that China is in talks with Pfizer Inc to obtain a license that will allow domestic drugmakers to manufacture and distribute a generic version of US firm Paxlovid’s COVID-19 antiviral drug in China.
Many Chinese have been trying to buy the drug abroad and ship it to China.
On the vaccine front, China’s CanSino Biologics Inc announced that it has begun trial production for its COVID-19 mRNA booster vaccine, known as CS-2034.
China has relied on nine domestically developed COVID vaccines approved for use, including inactivated vaccines, but none have been adapted to target the highly transmissible Omicron variant and its derivatives currently in circulation.
The overall vaccination rate in the country is above 90%, but the rate for adults receiving booster shots drops to 57.9% and 42.3% for people over 80, according to published government data. last month.
China reported three new COVID deaths on the mainland on Friday, bringing its official tally of virus deaths to 5,267, one of the lowest in the world. International health experts believe Beijing’s narrow definition of COVID deaths does not reflect a true count, with some predicting more than a million deaths this year.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
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