By Casey Hall
SHANGHAI (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – China 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 on Saturday, preparing for a huge increase in travelers and spread of COVID-19 infections.
This Lunar New Year public holiday, which officially runs from January 21, will be the first since 2020 without restrictions on domestic travel.
Over the past month, China has seen the dramatic dismantling of its “COVID-zero” regime following historic protests against a policy that included frequent testing, limited movement, mass lockdowns and severe damage to the world’s No. 2 economy.
Investors are hoping the reopening will eventually reinvigorate a $17 trillion economy suffering the slowest growth in nearly half a century.
But the abrupt changes have exposed large parts of China’s 1.4 billion population to the virus for the first time, triggering a wave of infections that is sweeping some hospitals, emptying pharmacy shelves of medicines and causing long lines to form at crematoria.
The Transport Ministry said on Friday it expects more than 2 billion passengers to make trips in the next 40 days, up 99.5% year-on-year and reaching 70.3% of the number of trips in 2019.
There were mixed reactions online to that news, 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.
Many others, however, said they would not travel this year, with concerns about infecting elderly relatives being a common theme.
“I dare not go back to my hometown, for fear of bringing back the poison,” said one such Twitter-like Weibo comment.
There are widespread concerns that the large migration of workers from cities to their hometowns will cause a surge in infections in smaller cities and rural areas that are less equipped with intensive care beds and ventilators to deal with them.
Authorities say they are boosting primary medical services, opening more rural fever clinics and setting up a “green channel” for high-risk patients, especially older adults with underlying health conditions, to be transferred from villages directly to hospitals top level.
“China’s rural areas are vast, the population is large, and per capita medical resources are relatively insufficient,” National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said on Saturday.
“There is a need to provide cost-effective services, speed up vaccination for the elderly in rural areas and build baseline defenses.”
PEAK OF INFECTIONS REACHED
Some analysts now say the current surge in infections may have already peaked.
Ernan Cui, an analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing, cited several online surveys indicating that rural areas were already more widely exposed to COVID infections than initially thought, with an infection peak already reached in most regions, noting that “there was not much difference between urban and rural areas”.
China will reopen its border with Hong Kong on Sunday and also end the quarantine requirement for travelers from overseas. This effectively opens the door for many Chinese to travel overseas for the first time since borders closed nearly three years ago, without fear of having to quarantine upon their return.
Jillian Xin, who has three children and lives in Hong Kong, said she was “incredibly enthusiastic” about the opening of the border, mainly because it means seeing family in Beijing more easily.
“For us, the opening of the border means my children can finally meet their grandparents for the first time since the pandemic began,” she said. “Two of our children have never been able to see their grandfather, so we can’t wait for them to meet.”
The surge in cases in China has caused international concern, and more than a dozen countries are now requiring COVID tests from travelers from China. The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that China’s COVID data underrepresented the number of hospitalizations and deaths from the disease.
Chinese officials and state media have defended its handling of the outbreak, downplaying the severity of the outbreak and denouncing overseas travel requirements for its residents.
In Hong Kong on Saturday, people who had made appointments had to queue for around 90 minutes at a center for PCR testing needed for travel to countries like mainland China.
For much of the pandemic, China has been investing resources in an extensive 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 on Friday announced an end to free PCR testing for residents starting January 8.
A circular issued 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 31 March.
Meanwhile, sources told RockedBuzz via Reuters that China is in talks with Pfizer Inc to obtain a license that will allow domestic drugmakers to produce and distribute a generic version of the US company Paxlovid’s COVID antiviral drug in China.
Many Chinese have attempted to purchase the drug overseas and have it shipped to China.
On the vaccine front, China’s CanSino Biologics Inc announced that it has started experimental production for its COVID mRNA booster vaccine, known as CS-2034.
China has relied on nine domestically developed 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 over 90%, but the rate for adults who received booster shots drops to 57.9% and 42.3% for people aged 80 and older, according to government data released last month.
China reported three new mainland COVID deaths for Friday, bringing the official death toll from the virus since the start of the pandemic 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, and some predict more than a million deaths this year.
(Reporting by Casey Hall in Shanghai, Julie Zhu in Hong Kong and Kevin HuangAdditional reporting by Jindong ZhangEditing by Tony Munroe and Frances Kerry)