China’s “great migration” starts in the shadow of COVID

Change Roof

More than 2 billion Chinese passengers are set to take trips during the next 40-day Lunar New Year period. However, there are still concerns about the increase in travelers and the spread of COVID-19 infections.

Selene Brophy

China on Saturday marked the first day of “chun yun,” the 40-day period of Lunar New Year travel known pre-pandemic as the world’s largest annual migration of people, bracing for a huge increase in travelers and the spread of COVID-19 infections.

This Lunar New Year public holiday, which officially runs from January 21, will be the first since 2020 without domestic travel restrictions.

Over the past month, China has seen the dramatic dismantling of its “zero COVID” regime after historic protests against a policy that included frequent testing, restricted movement, mass lockdowns and heavy damage to the world’s No. 2 economy.

Investors hope the reopening will eventually revive a $17 trillion economy suffering from the slowest growth in nearly half a century.

But the abrupt changes have exposed many of China’s 1.4 billion people to the virus for the first time, sparking a wave of infections that is overwhelming some hospitals, emptying pharmacy shelves of drugs and causing long lines at crematoria.

China’s Ministry of Transport said on Friday it expects more than 2 billion passengers to take trips in the next 40 days, up 99.5 percent year-on-year and reaching 70.3 percent of 2019 travel figures.

Reaction to this news online was mixed, with some comments hailing the freedom to return to their hometowns and celebrate the Lunar New Year with family for the first time in years.

However, many others said they would not travel this year, with concerns about infecting elderly relatives a common theme.

“I dare not go back to my hometown, for fear of bringing back the poison,” said one such comment on Twitter-like Weibo.

There is widespread concern that the large-scale migration of urban workers to their hometowns will lead to an increase in infections in smaller towns and rural areas that are less equipped with ICU beds and ventilators to deal with them.

Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics, acknowledged this risk in a Friday note, but went on to say that “in the big cities that make up much of China’s economy, the worst appears to have passed.”

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 was not much difference between urban and rural areas.

Limits opening

Sunday marks the reopening of China’s border with Hong Kong and the end of China’s requirement that incoming international travelers be quarantined. It effectively opened the door for many Chinese to travel abroad for the first time since the borders were closed nearly three years ago, without fear of having to be quarantined upon their return.

More than a dozen countries now require COVID tests from Chinese travelers, as the World Health Organization said China’s official virus data underreported the true extent of the outbreak.

Chinese officials and state media have defended the handling of the outbreak, downplayed the severity of the increase and condemned foreign travel requirements for citizens.

On Saturday in Hong Kong, people with appointments had to queue for about 90 minutes at a center for PCR tests needed to travel to countries including mainland China.

Processing in the foreground

For much of the pandemic, China has poured resources into an extensive PCR testing program to track and trace COVID-19 cases, but the focus is now 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 8.

A circular issued by four government ministries on Saturday signaled a redistribution of financial resources for treatment, outlining a plan for public finances to subsidize 60 percent of treatment costs until March 31.

Meanwhile, sources told Reuters that China is in talks with Pfizer Inc to secure a license that would allow domestic drugmakers to manufacture and distribute a generic version of the US firm’s COVID-19 antiviral drug Paxlovid in China.

Many Chinese have tried to buy the drug abroad and have it shipped 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 offshoots currently in circulation.

The overall vaccination rate in the country is above 90 percent, but the rate for adults who have received booster shots drops to 57.9 percent, and to 42.3 percent for people age 80 and older, according to government data released last month.

China reported three new mainland COVID deaths on Friday, bringing the official virus death toll 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 toll, with some predicting more than a million deaths this year.

(Reporting by Casey Hall in Shanghai, Julie Zhu in Hong Kong and Kevin Huang, additional reporting by Jindong Zhang; Editing by Tony Munroe)

This article was written by Casey Hall of Reuters and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Send all licensing questions to [email protected].

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