- The peak of the COVID wave was seen for 2-3 months – epidemiologist
- Older people in rural areas are particularly at risk
- People’s mobility indicators are rising, but they have not yet fully recovered
BEIJING (Reuters) – A top Chinese epidemiologist said the peak of the COVID-19 wave in China is expected to last between two and three months, and will soon swell into the vast countryside where medical resources are relatively scarce.
Infection is expected to increase in rural areas as hundreds of millions travel to their home towns for the Lunar New Year holiday, which officially starts from January 21 and was known before the pandemic as the largest annual exodus of people in the world.
China last month abruptly abandoned the strict mass virus lockdown regime that fueled historic protests across the country in late November, finally reopening its borders last Sunday.
The sudden undoing of restrictions unleashed the virus on 1.4 billion people in China, more than a third of whom live in areas where infections have already passed their peak, according to state media.
But Zeng Guang, a former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that the worst of the outbreak was far from over, according to a report in local media outlet Caixin on Thursday.
“Our priority focus was on the big cities. It’s time to focus on the rural areas,” Zeng was quoted as saying.
He said a large number of people in the countryside, where medical facilities are relatively poor, are being left behind, including the elderly, the sick and the disabled.
Authorities said they are making efforts to improve the supply of antivirals across the country. Merck & Co (MRK.N) Molnopiravir COVID treatment is expected to be available in China from Friday.
The World Health Organization also warned this week of the risks posed by holiday travel.
China is not reporting enough deaths from Covid, the UN agency said, though it is now providing more information about the outbreak.
China’s foreign ministry said the country’s health officials had five technical exchanges with the World Health Organization over the past month and were transparent.
Health authorities have reported five or fewer deaths per day for the past month, numbers that don’t match the long lines seen at funeral homes and body bags seen emerging from crowded hospitals.
The country has not reported coronavirus death data since Monday. Officials said in December that they intended to release monthly updates, rather than daily ones, going forward.
Although international health experts have projected at least 1 million COVID-related deaths this year, China has reported just over 5,000 cases since the pandemic began, one of the lowest death rates in the world.
Tensions with Japan and South Korea
Concerns about data transparency were among the factors that prompted more than a dozen countries to require pre-departure COVID tests from travelers arriving from China.
Beijing, which sealed off its borders from the rest of the world for three years and still requires all visitors to be tested before their trip, said it strongly opposes such restrictions, which it deems “discriminatory” and “unscientific”.
Tensions rose this week with South Korea and Japan, as China retaliated by suspending short-term visas for its citizens. The two countries are also limiting flights, testing travelers from China upon arrival, and isolating those in quarantine.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said on Friday that Tokyo will continue to demand transparency from China about the outbreak, calling Beijing’s retaliation one-sided, unrelated to COVID and “deeply regrettable”.
Parts of China were returning to normal life.
Particularly in major cities, residents are increasingly on the move, indicating a gradual recovery in consumption and economic activity this year. However, traffic data and other indicators have not yet fully recovered to levels of just a few months ago.
While China’s reopening has given a boost to financial assets globally after one of its worst years on record, policymakers from the United States to Europe worry that it could fuel renewed inflationary pressures.
However, the December trade data released on Friday provided reasons for caution about the pace of China’s recovery.
“With growth outside China continuing to slow, exports may continue to contract until the middle of the year,” said Xichun Huang, an economist at Capital Economics.
Jin Chufeng, whose company operates in the eastern port city of Hangzhou, said he has no expansion or hiring plans for 2023.
“With the lifting of Covid restrictions, domestic demand is expected to improve, but not exports,” he said.
Data next week is expected to show China’s economy growing just 2.8% in 2022 under the weight of repeated lockdowns, the second-slowest rate since 1976, the final year of Mao Zedong’s decade-long Cultural Revolution that devastated the economy, according to a poll. Reported by Reuters. .
Hence, growth is expected to rebound to 4.9% this year, still well below the trend of recent decades.
Some analysts say last year’s lockdowns will leave lasting scars on China, including by exacerbating its already grim demographic outlook.
additional coverage from the Beijing and Shanghai newsrooms; Written by Marius Zaharia. Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan
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