Chinese worry about elderly as WHO warns of COVID outbreak over holiday

  • Two billion trips expected for Lunar New Year
  • The virus is spreading from cities to vulnerable villages
  • WHO says China’s response challenged by lack of data
  • China’s grand reopening spoiled by Japan and Korea spat

BEIJING, Jan 12 (Reuters) – People in China on Thursday worried about the spread of COVID-19 to elderly relatives as they planned to return to their hometown for a vacation that the World Health Organization said. health, could ignite a raging epidemic.

The Lunar New Year holiday, which officially begins on January 21, comes after China abandoned a strict anti-virus regime of mass lockdowns last month that caused widespread frustration and turned into historic protests.

This abrupt reversal triggered COVID on a population of 1.4 billion people with no natural immunity, having been protected from the virus since its first outbreak in late 2019, and including many older people who are not fully vaccinated.

The epidemic spreading from Chinese megacities to rural areas with weaker medical resources is overwhelming some hospitals and crematoriums.

With little official data from China, the WHO said on Wednesday it would be difficult to manage the virus during a holiday period considered the world’s largest annual migration of people.

More warnings from top Chinese health experts for people to avoid elderly parents during the holidays surfaced on China’s Weibo Twitter’s most-read article on Thursday.

“This is a very valid suggestion, return to hometown…or put the health of the elderly first,” wrote one user. Another user said he didn’t dare to visit his grandmother and would leave gifts for her on the doorstep.

“It’s almost New Years and I’m afraid she’s feeling lonely,” the user wrote.

More than two billion journeys are expected across China during the broader Lunar New Year period, which began on Jan. 7 and lasts 40 days, according to the transport ministry. That’s double last year’s travel and 70% of that seen in 2019 before the pandemic emerged in China’s central city of Wuhan.

“I will stay home and avoid going to crowded places,” said Chen, a 27-year-old documentary filmmaker in Beijing who plans to visit her hometown in eastern Zhejiang province.

Chen said she would sanitize her hands before meeting elderly relatives, like her grandmother, who managed to avoid infection.

THE CRITICAL LACK OF DATA

The WHO and foreign governments have criticized China for not being upfront about the scale and severity of its outbreak, leading several countries to impose restrictions on Chinese travelers.

China has reported five or fewer deaths a day for the past month, figures that do not match the long lines seen at funeral homes. The country did not report data on COVID deaths on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Liang Wannian, the head of a COVID expert group under the national health authority, told reporters that deaths could only be accurately counted after the pandemic was over.

Although international health experts predicted at least one million COVID-related deaths this year, China has reported just over 5,000 since the start of the pandemic, a fraction of what other countries have reported. reported by removing restrictions.

Beyond the death toll, investors are betting China’s reopening will reinvigorate a $17 trillion economy that is seeing its weakest growth in nearly half a century.

That lifted Asian stocks to a seven-month high, strengthened China’s yuan currency against the US dollar and supported global oil prices on hopes of fresh demand from the world’s biggest importer.

Chinese growth is expected to rebound to 4.9% in 2023, according to a Reuters poll of economists released on Thursday. GDP likely only grew by 2.8% in 2022, according to the poll, as shutdowns weighed on activity and confidence, dampening sharply from growth of 8.4% in 2021.

TRAVEL CHALLENGES

After three years of isolation from the outside world, China on Sunday dropped quarantine mandates for incoming visitors in a move that should eventually boost outbound travel as well.

But concerns about the outbreak in China have prompted more than a dozen countries to require negative COVID test results from people arriving from China.

Among them, South Korea and Japan have also restricted flights and require testing on arrival, with passengers testing positive being sent to quarantine.

In a growing row between regional rivals, China has in turn stopped issuing short-term visas and suspended transit visa waivers for South Korean and Japanese nationals.

Despite Beijing lifting travel restrictions, flight bookings from China were only 15% of pre-pandemic levels in the week after the country announced it would reopen its borders, a travel data firm ForwardKeys said Thursday.

Low airline capacity, high airfares, new pre-flight COVID-19 testing requirements by many countries and a backlog of passport and visa applications pose challenges as the industry looks to recovery , ForwardKeys Insights Vice President Olivier Ponti said in a statement.

Hong Kong Airlines said on Thursday it does not expect to regain capacity until mid-2024.

Reporting by Bernard Orr, Liz Lee, Eduardo Baptista and Jing Wang in Beijing; Written by John Geddie; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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