- Peak of COVID wave lasting 2-3 months – Epidemiologist
- Older people in rural areas are particularly vulnerable
- Human mobility indicators are increasing, but have yet to fully recover
BEIJING, Jan 13 (Reuters) – The peak of China’s COVID-19 wave is expected to last two to three months and will soon swell across the vast landscape where medical resources are relatively scarce, a top Chinese epidemiologist has said.
Infections in rural areas are expected to rise as hundreds of millions head to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday, which officially begins on January 27. 21, known before the pandemic as the world’s largest annual migration of people.
China abruptly last month abandoned the strict antivirus regime of mass lockdowns that fueled historic protests across the country in late November, finally reopening its borders last Sunday.
The abrupt lifting of restrictions has spread the virus to China’s 1.4 billion people, more than a third of whom live in regions where infections have already peaked, according to state media.
But the worst of the outbreak is not over yet, warned Zeng Guang, the former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a report published by local media outlet Caixin on Thursday.
“Our primary focus was on the big cities. It’s time to focus on rural areas,” Zeng was quoted as saying.
He said large numbers of people are being left behind in rural areas where medical services are relatively poor, including the elderly, the sick and the disabled.
Authorities have said they are making efforts to improve the supply of antivirals across the country. Merck & Co (MRK.N) Molnupiravir is expected to be used for COVID treatment made available in China From Friday.
The World Health Organization also warned this week about the risks of vacation travel.
The UN agency said China has been heavily underreporting deaths from COVID, although it is now providing more information about its outbreak.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the country’s health authorities had held five technical talks with the WHO in the past month and had been transparent.
Health officials have been reporting five or fewer deaths a day for the past month, numbers that don’t match the long lines outside funeral homes and body bags from overcrowded hospitals.
The country has not reported any COVID deaths since Monday. Officials said in December they planned to issue monthly updates instead of daily ones in the future.
Although international health experts have predicted at least 1 million COVID-related deaths this year, China has reported just over 5,000 since the pandemic began, one of the lowest death tolls in the world.
TENSIONS WITH JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA
Data transparency concerns were among the factors that prompted more than a dozen countries to require pre-departure COVID testing for travelers arriving from China.
Beijing, which closed its borders to the rest of the world for three years and still requires all visitors to be tested before traveling, has spoken out strongly against such curbs, which it finds “discriminatory” and “unscientific”. .
Tensions with South Korea and Japan escalated this week, with China suspending short-stay visas for its nationals in retaliation. The two countries are also restricting flights, testing travelers from China on arrival and quarantining those who are positive.
Japan’s top cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno on Friday said Tokyo will continue to urge China to be transparent about its outbreak, calling Beijing’s retaliation unilateral, unrelated to COVID and extremely “regrettable”.
Parts of China returned to normal life.
There are mainly residents in the larger cities increasingly on the go, pointing to a gradual recovery in consumption and economic activity this year. Still, traffic data and other indicators have not yet fully recovered to the levels seen a few months ago.
During China’s reopening there has been a boost on global financial assets after one of the worst years on record, policymakers from the United States to Europe fear it could fuel renewed inflationary pressures.
However, in December trading data Data released on Friday gave reason to be cautious about the pace of China’s recovery.
“As growth outside of China is still slowing, exports could contract further into the middle of the year,” said Zichun Huang, an economist at Capital Economics.
Jin Chaofeng, whose company exports rattan outdoor furniture in the east coast city of Hangzhou, said he has no plans for expansion or hiring in 2023.
“With the lifting of the COVID curbs, domestic demand is expected to improve, but exports will not,” he said.
Next week’s data is expected to show that under the weight of repeated lockdowns, China’s economy grew just 2.8% in 2022, the second slowest since 1976, the final year of Mao Zedong’s decade-long Cultural Revolution that wrecked the economy, one said Reuters poll.
This year, growth should then recover to 4.9% and thus still be well below the trend of the last few decades.
Some analysts say last year’s lockdowns will leave lasting scars in China, even through worsening already grim demographic prospects.
Additional coverage by newsrooms in Beijing and Shanghai; Letter from Marius Zaharia; Edited by Raju Gopalakrishnan
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