Lunar New Year migration begins in China, haunted by COVID-19

by Casey Hall

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – This Saturday in China marks the first day of “chun yun”, a 40-day period corresponding to the Lunar New Year called to give rise to large movements of people favorable to the large-scale spread of the epidemic of coronavirus. COVID-19.

For the first time since 2020, the Lunar New Year, which officially begins on January 21, will not be accompanied by movement restrictions after the authorities abandoned the “zero COVID” policy synonymous with confinements, closures and other campaigns of tests that have seriously affected the world’s second largest economy.

Investors hope the reopening of the country will help revitalize an economy that is recording its weakest growth in nearly half a century.

The abrupt change in policy also has the consequence of exposing a large part of the 1.4 billion inhabitants to the virus for the first time, triggering a wave of infections that overwhelms hospitals, empties pharmacy shelves and lengthens lines. waiting in crematoriums.

The Department of Transport said on Friday it expects more than two billion passenger trips over the next 40 days, a 99.5% year-on-year increase, or 70.3% of the number of trips recorded in 2019.

Online reactions to the news have been mixed, with some welcoming the possibility of celebrating the Lunar New Year with family for the first time in years, others worried about infecting elderly relatives.

“I dare not return to my hometown for fear of bringing back the poison,” read one such comment on Weibo’s Twitter account.

The large migration of workers to their region of origin could cause contamination peaks in small towns and rural areas, which are less well equipped with intensive care beds and ventilators.

Authorities say they are strengthening basic medical services, opening clinics and taking measures for high-risk patients, especially the frail elderly.

“China’s rural areas are vast, the population is large, and the medical resources per capita are relatively insufficient,” National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said on Saturday.

According to some analysts, the current wave of infections may have already peaked.

REOPENING OF BORDERS

On Sunday, China will reopen its border with Hong Kong and end the requirement for travelers from overseas to self-quarantine. Many Chinese will be able to travel abroad for the first time since the borders were closed nearly three years ago, without fear of having to quarantine when they return. More than a dozen countries now require COVID tests from travelers from China.

The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that data from Beijing in terms of the number of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID were underestimated.

Chinese officials and state media have defended their handling of the outbreak, downplaying the severity of the outbreak and criticizing overseas measures against Chinese travellers. Saturday in Hong Kong, people who had made an appointment had to wait for about an hour and a half in a PCR testing center before traveling, in mainland China in particular.

China, which has invested heavily in an extensive testing program, is now focusing on vaccines and treatment. In Shanghai, for example, authorities announced on Friday the end of free PCR tests for residents from January 8. According to a circular published on Saturday by four ministries, financial resources are reallocated to treatments, subsidized up to 60% until March 31. Sources told Reuters that China was in talks with Pfizer Inc to secure a license for China to manufacture and distribute a generic version of US group Paxlovid’s COVID antiviral drug.

Many Chinese have attempted to buy the drug overseas and have it shipped to China.

On the vaccine front, Chinese company CanSino Biologics Inc said it has launched trials for its COVID mRNA booster vaccine, known as CS-2034.

China has developed nine vaccines domestically, but none targets the highly transmissible variant of Omicron and its offshoots currently in circulation. The country’s vaccination rate is over 90% but the rate for adults who received boosters drops to 57.9% and 42.3% for people aged 80 and over, according to government data released in December.

China reported three new COVID deaths on the mainland on Friday, bringing the official death toll since the start of the pandemic to 5,267, one of the lowest in the world. International health experts say Beijing’s narrow definition of COVID deaths doesn’t reflect the true toll, and some predict more than a million deaths could occur this year.

(Reporting Casey Hall in Shanghai, Julie Zhu in Hong Kong and Kevin Huang, with contributions from Jindong Zhang; French version Elizabeth Pineau)

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