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China downplays COVID outbreak with holiday rush at full swing

  • Top official says COVID at ‘relatively low’ levels
  • Hospital, critical cases are declining, authorities say
  • More than 2 billion trips are expected over the Lunar New Year
  • Some fear the travel season could lead to a spike in infections

BEIJING, Jan 20 (Reuters) – People across China crowded onto trains and buses on Friday on one of the busiest travel days in years, stoking fears of fresh flare-ups in a raging COVID-19 outbreak officials say he has reached his peak.

In comments reported by state media late Thursday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said the virus was at “relatively low” levels, while health officials said the number of COVID patients in hospital and with critical conditions was declining.

But there are widespread doubts about China’s official account of an outbreak that has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes since Beijing abandoned strict COVID controls and mass testing last month.

This policy reversal, which followed historic protests against the government’s harsh anti-virus restrictions, unleashed COVID on a population of 1.4 billion who have been largely protected from the disease since it emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Some health experts expect more than a million people will die from the disease in China this year, with UK-based health data company Airfinity predicting COVID deaths could reach 36,000 a day next week.

“Recently, the overall pandemic in the country is at a relatively low level,” Sun said in comments reported by the state news agency Xinhua.

“The number of critical patients in hospitals is steadily decreasing, although the rescue mission is still difficult.”

Her comments came on the eve of one of the busiest travel days in China since the outbreak of the pandemic in late 2019, as millions of city dwellers head to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday, which officially begins Saturday.

According to government estimates, there will be more than 2 billion trips through China between Jan. 7 and Feb. 15.

Excited passengers laden with luggage and gift boxes boarded the trains on Friday and headed for long-awaited family reunions.

“Everyone really wants to go home. After all, we haven’t seen our families for so long,” a 30-year-old surnamed Li told Reuters at Beijing West Railway Station.

But for others, the holiday is a reminder of lost loved ones.

Gu Bei, a writer from Shanghai, said on social media platform Weibo that she had been waiting for her mother’s cremation for almost two weeks and that the funeral home could not tell her when the service would be held.

China’s internet regulator said this week it would censor any “false information” about the spread of the virus, which could create “somber” mood during Lunar New Year celebrations.

“I’ve heard that no dark and somber words are allowed in the new year. Then let me mourn my mother now,” Gu said in her post, which did not specify the cause of her mother’s death.

Funeral directors’ spending on items from body bags to cremators has risen in many provinces, documents show, one of several clues to COVID’s deadly toll.

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President Xi Jinping said this week he is concerned about an influx of travelers to rural areas with weak medical systems and that protecting the elderly – many of whom are not fully vaccinated – is a top priority.

China reported a large spike in COVID hospitalizations in the week ending Jan. 15, the highest since the pandemic began, according to a report by the World Health Organization on Thursday.

Hospital admissions rose 70% from the previous week to 63,307, the WHO said, citing data provided by Beijing.

But in a Thursday news conference, health officials said the number of COVID patients who had reported to hospital had peaked, with more than 40% fewer people with critical conditions being treated on Jan. 17 compared to a peak on January 5th.

China has said nearly 60,000 people have died in hospital with COVID between December 8 and January 12. That number excludes those who died at home, however, and some doctors have said they are discouraged from putting COVID on death certificates.

While China’s reopening has been messy, investors are hoping it will help revitalize the $17 trillion economy by placing bets that have pushed Chinese stocks and the yuan currency to multi-month highs.

“Markets are broadly anticipating a surge in pent-up demand to be released as China’s economy reopens,” Nomura analysts said in a statement.

They warned that a fall in household wealth and a rise in youth unemployment, a holdover from years of lockdown and travel restrictions, could dampen the recovery.

While international flights are scarce, Chinese tourists, a much-missed mainstay of the global retail and travel industries, are starting to travel again.

Malls from Macau to Bangkok aim to lure them in with red lanterns and special dances to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit – and hefty discounts.

According to estimates by consulting firm Bain, Chinese travel spending had risen to US$255 billion in 2019, accounting for 33% of global luxury goods market spending.

Reporting by Liz Lee, Alessandro Diviggiano, Bernard Orr and the Beijing newsroom; writing by John Geddie; Edited by Robert Birsel

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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