June 4, 2023

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China is playing down the novel coronavirus outbreak as it rushes into holidays at full speed

  • Senior official says COVID at ‘relatively low’ level
  • Hospitals are dropping critical cases, authorities say
  • More than two billion trips are expected during the Lunar New Year
  • Some fear that the travel season will lead to an increase in infections

BEIJING (Reuters) – People across China crowded trains and buses on Friday for one of the busiest travel days in years, raising fears of a new wave in the novel coronavirus outbreak that officials say has peaked.

In comments reported by state media late Thursday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said the virus was at a “relatively low” level, while health officials said the number of hospitalized and critically ill COVID patients was declining.

But there is widespread skepticism about China’s official account of the outbreak, which has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes since Beijing abandoned strict coronavirus controls and mass testing last month.

This policy shift, which followed historic protests against tough government virus restrictions, unleashed COVID on a population of 1.4 billion that had been largely shielded from the disease since it emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Some health experts expect more than a million people to die from the disease in China this year, with UK health data firm Airfinity predicting COVID deaths could reach 36,000 per day next week.

“Recently, the general epidemic in the country has reached a relatively low level,” Sun said, in remarks reported by the state-run Xinhua news agency.

“The number of critical patients in hospitals is steadily declining, although the rescue mission remains heavy.”

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She spoke on the eve of one of the strictest travel days in China since the start of the pandemic, as millions of city-dwellers travel back to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday, which officially begins on Saturday.

More than two billion trips are expected to take place across China between January 7 and February 15, according to government estimates.

You long to go home

Excited commuters laden with luggage and boxes of gifts boarded trains on Friday, heading for a long-awaited family reunion.

“Everyone is eager to go home. After all, we haven’t seen our families for a long time,” Li, 30, who gave his surname, told Reuters at the Beijing West Railway Station.

But for others, the holiday is a reminder of lost loved ones.

Gu Bei, a writer from Shanghai, said on the social media platform Weibo that she had been waiting for nearly two weeks to cremate her mother, and the funeral home could not tell her when to serve.

China’s internet regulator said this week it would ban any “false information” about the spread of the virus that could cause “dark” feelings during the Lunar New Year celebrations.

In her post, which did not specify the cause of her mother’s death, Jo said: “I have not heard dark and gloomy words allowed during the New Year. Then let me grieve for my mother now.”

Documents showed funeral home spending on items from body bags to crematorium ovens soaring in many counties, one of several indicators of the deadly toll of the coronavirus.

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China said nearly 60,000 people with COVID died in hospital between December 8 and January 12. However, that number does not include those who died at home, and some doctors said they discourage putting COVID on death certificates.

pent-up demand

President Xi Jinping said this week he was concerned about the influx of travelers into rural areas with weak medical systems, and that protecting the elderly — many of whom were not fully vaccinated — was a top priority.

The World Health Organization’s director of vaccinations, Kate O’Brien, praised China on Friday for making rapid progress in vaccinating the elderly with COVID shots and boosters since lifting anti-virus controls last month.

However, she added, some seniors found it “difficult” to understand the changes in vaccination policy because they had previously been advised not to seek protection.

A report by the World Health Organization said Thursday that China recorded a significant jump in hospitalizations due to the Corona virus in the week to January 15, to the highest level since the start of the epidemic. The number of hospitalizations rose 70% from the previous week to 63,307, according to the World Health Organization, citing data provided by Beijing.

But at a news conference Thursday, health officials said the number of COVID patients reporting to the hospital peaked with more than 40% fewer people being treated for critical conditions on Jan. 17 compared with the Jan. 5 peak.

While China’s reopening has been messy, investors hope it will help revive its $17 trillion economy, placing bets that have lifted Chinese stocks and its currency, the yuan, to multi-month highs.

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“Markets widely expect that a surge in pent-up demand will be triggered by the reopening of the Chinese economy,” Nomura analysts said in a note.

They warned that declining household wealth and high youth unemployment, a hangover from years of lockdowns and travel restrictions, may dampen the recovery.

While international flights are scarce, Chinese tourists, a mainstay of the world’s retail and travel industry, are starting to travel again.

Malls from Macau to Bangkok aim to lure them in with red-lantern displays, special dances to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit – and deep discounts.

Chinese travel spending grew to $255 billion in 2019, accounting for 33% of spending in the global luxury personal goods market, according to estimates from consulting firm Bain.

Reporting by Liz Lee, Alessandro Divigiano, Bernard Orr, and the Beijing Newsroom Writing by John Geddy and Frances Kerry Editing by Robert Purcell and Chizu Nomiyama

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.