- 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) Molinopiravir was made available in China as of 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.
“Since the outbreak of the epidemic, China has shared relevant information and data with the international community in an open, transparent and responsible manner,” Foreign Ministry official Wu Xi told reporters.
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.
China has not reported COVID 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.
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, is objecting to the restrictions.
Wu said the accusations made by individual countries were “totally unreasonable, unscientific and unfounded.”
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, calling Beijing’s response “deeply regrettable.”
Parts of China were returning to normal life.
Particularly in big cities, residents are increasingly on the move, indicating a gradual, if so far slow, recovery in consumption and economic activity.
An average of 490,000 daily trips have been made in and out of China since it reopened on January 8, an immigration official said Friday, just 26% of pre-pandemic levels.
Singapore resident Chu Wenhong was among those who were finally reunited with their parents for the first time in three years.
“They both had COVID, and they’re both very old. I feel very fortunate actually, because it wasn’t too serious for them, but their health isn’t very good,” she said.
While China’s reopening has given a boost to financial assets globally, policymakers around the world worry it could renew inflationary pressures.
However, trade data for December released on Friday provided reasons to be cautious about the pace of recovery in China.
Jin Chufeng, whose company exports wicker outdoor furniture, 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.
Next week’s data is expected to show China’s economy growing just 2.8% in 2022, the second-slowest growth since 1976, the last year of Mao Zedong’s decade-long Cultural Revolution, according to a Reuters poll.
Some analysts say last year’s lockdowns will leave lasting scars on China, including by exacerbating its already grim demographic outlook.
Hence, growth is expected to rebound to 4.9% this year, still well below the pre-pandemic trend.
additional coverage from the Beijing and Shanghai newsrooms; Written by Marius Zaharia. Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan
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