WUHAN (Reuters) – Thousands of Chinese took to the streets to celebrate the New Year as authorities and state media sought to reassure the public that the COVID-19 outbreak sweeping the country was under control and nearing its peak.
Although many people in major cities continued to go into isolation as the virus spread through the population, New Year’s celebrations seemed mostly unaffected as people celebrated the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023.
In Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first identified at the end of 2019, residents said concerns about the impact of easing strict COVID-free restrictions on living with the disease have now eased — at least for young and healthy people.
“Basically, my friends and I now feel relatively positive and optimistic,” said a 29-year-old teacher surnamed Wu. “A lot of people go out and walk around.”
“We all know that especially those who are middle-aged and elderly, especially those over 60 years of age, and especially those with underlying diseases, will be affected by this virus,” he said.
A long line of people lined the emergency department of Wuhan’s Tongji Hospital, a major facility for COVID-19 patients, like 72-year-old Huang, who wanted to be identified only by her surname.
“I don’t feel well. I have no energy. I can’t breathe. I used to be healthy. I had an x-ray to check my lungs… This hospital is too much trouble, you have to wait for so long.”
Data is monitored
China’s sudden shift on COVID controls — as well as the accuracy of its case and death data — is under increasing scrutiny at home and abroad.
The surge in cases has raised new concerns about the health of the economy and in his first public comments since the change in policy, President Xi Jinping in his New Year’s address called for greater effort and unity as China enters a “new phase”.
China reported one new COVID-19 death on the mainland for Dec. 31, the same day before, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said on Sunday.
The official cumulative death toll in China is now 5,249, much lower than in other large countries. The government has rejected allegations that it deliberately underreported the total number of deaths.
At Hankou’s funeral home on the outskirts of Wuhan, an intermittent stream of mourners and motorists arrived on Sunday.
Staff at the entrance to the heavily guarded site refused to answer questions about recent workloads. But funeral homes in other cities in China – including Chengdu and Beijing – said they were busier than ever since China abruptly abandoned COVID restrictions last month.
China’s CDC reported 5,138 officially confirmed cases on Saturday, but with mass testing halted, experts say the actual number of infections is much higher.
Daily cases peaked at around 60,000 recently and now stand at around 19,000, state media in the southeastern Chinese city of Guangzhou said on Sunday.
The authorities are trying to reassure the public that the situation is under control and Xinhua published an editorial on Sunday saying the current strategy was a “science-based planned approach” that reflected the changing nature of the virus.
Separately, Xinhua said drug manufacturing accelerated in the past month, with output of the painkillers ibuprofen and paracetamol now reaching 190 million tablets per day, five times higher than in early December.
Production of antigen test kits nearly doubled to 110 million per day in a month, she said.
On Sunday, Australia and Canada joined the United States and others in requiring travelers from China to present negative COVID-19 tests upon arrival. The Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Morocco will impose a ban on people coming from China.
Australian Health Minister Mark Butler said additional measures would be considered amid concerns that China is not disclosing enough information about the nature and extent of the current outbreak.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Sunday offered to provide “necessary assistance” to China to help it deal with the surge in COVID-19 cases.
Additional reporting by Martin Quinn Pollard in Wuhan and David Stanaway in Shanghai; Editing by Neil Vollick
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