- China will ease border restrictions from January 8
- Online searches for flights increase – travel platforms
- The wave of COVID invades hospitals, burdens the economy
BEIJING, Dec 27 (Reuters) – Chinese, cut off from the rest of the world for three years by COVID-19 curbs, flocked to travel destinations on Tuesday ahead of the reopening of borders, even as rising infections further strained the system health and made it worse. The economy.
Zero-tolerance measures – from closed borders to frequent lockdowns – have hit China’s economy since the start of 2020, prompting last month the biggest show of public discontent on the mainland since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012. .
His policy reversal this month means the virus is now spreading largely unchecked across the country of 1.4 billion people.
Official statistics, however, showed just one death from COVID in the past seven days to Monday, prompting doubts among health experts and residents about the government’s records. The numbers are inconsistent with the experience of much less populated countries after they reopened.
Doctors say hospitals are overwhelmed with five to six times more patients than usual, most of them elderly. International health experts estimate millions of daily infections and predict at least one million deaths from COVID in China next year.
However, the authorities are determined to dismantle the last vestiges of their zero-COVID policies.
In a major step toward easing borders cheered by Asian stock markets on Tuesday, China will stop asking incoming travelers to quarantine from Jan. 8, the National Health Commission said late Monday.
“It finally feels like China has turned the corner,” AmCham China Chairman Colm Rafferty said of the planned lifting of quarantine restrictions.
Data from travel platform Ctrip showed that within half an hour of the news, searches for popular cross-border destinations had increased 10-fold. Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, South Korea were the most popular, Ctrip said.
Data from another platform, Qunar, showed that within 15 minutes of the news, searches for international flights increased sevenfold, with Thailand, Japan and South Korea topping the list.
China’s management of COVID will also be downgraded to the less strict category B from the current high-level category A from January 8, the health authority said, as it has become less virulent.
The change means authorities will no longer be forced to quarantine patients and their close contacts and lock down regions.
But for all the enthusiasm for a gradual return to a pre-Covid way of life, there was growing pressure on China’s healthcare system, with doctors saying many hospitals are overburdened and funeral parlor workers reporting an increase in demand. for their services.
Nurses and doctors have been asked to work as sick and retired medical workers in rural communities were rehired to help, state media reported. Some cities have been struggling to secure supplies of fever medicine.
“Just look at funeral parlors in different cities. I heard we have to stand in line for three to five days for cremation here,” one person in the eastern province of Shandong complained on social media.
While the world’s second-largest economy is expected to see a sharp rebound later next year, once the initial shock wave fades, it is in for a rough ride in the coming weeks and months as workers fall increasingly ill. .
Many shops in Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere have been forced to close in recent days with staff unable to come to work, while some factories have already sent many of their workers on leave for the January Lunar New Year holidays.
“Concern of a temporary supply chain distortion remains as the workforce is affected by infections,” JPMorgan analysts said in a note, adding that metro traffic tracking in 29 Chinese cities showed many people were restricting their movements. as the virus spreads. .
Tuesday’s data showed industrial profits fell 3.6% in January-November from a year earlier, compared with a 3.0% drop for the January-October period, reflecting the number of antivirus restrictions in force last month, including in key regions of production.
The lifting of travel restrictions is positive for the $17 trillion economy, but strong caveats apply.
“International travel … is likely to increase, however it may take many more months before volumes return to pre-pandemic levels,” said Dan Wang, chief economist at Hang Seng Bank China.
“Covid is still spreading in most parts of China, greatly disrupting normal working hours. The loss of productivity is significant and inflationary pressures in the coming months could be acute as the sudden increase in demand will outpace the recovery in supply. “
Reporting from the Beijing and Shanghai offices and Chen Lin in Singapore; Written by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Lincoln Feast.
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