Hong Kong (CNN) – A growing Covid outbreak in China. Countries imposing travel restrictions on Chinese travelers, wary of virus being imported. Scientists warn against inciting fear and xenophobia.
But this is not the start of 2020. The familiar scene is playing out now as China grapples with its biggest outbreak ever, after abandoning its strict zero-Covid approach and partially reopening its border three years after the pandemic.
Almost half of the 212 passengers who arrived at Italy’s Milan airport from China on Monday tested positive for Covid, a regional health chief said on Wednesday.
But as countries including the US and Japan move to impose restrictions, others such as France and the UK have made it clear they are ready to welcome Chinese travelers – who, before the pandemic, had been a key driver of international tourism .
Which countries are imposing testing requirements?
Japan announced on Tuesday that all travelers who have been to mainland China or traveled there within seven days will be tested upon arrival starting Friday and that the government will limit the number of flights to and from China.
The country’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, pointed to the lack of official Chinese government data. “While there are reports that the infection is spreading rapidly in mainland China, concern has grown in Japan as it is difficult to understand the detailed situation,” he said.
Indian authorities implemented similar guidelines for travelers not only from China, but also several nearby countries, including Japan, South Korea and Thailand. The guidelines are intended to ensure that Covid does not spread as quickly as it has in China, authorities said on Tuesday.
Taiwan also announced mandatory tests on arrival for travelers arriving from mainland China on Wednesday. The self-governing island has banned mainland Chinese tourists since the pandemic and only allows Chinese citizens to visit for business or family reasons.
In all three countries, those who test positive on arrival will be required to remain in quarantine for several days.
People walk with suitcases through a departure hall at Beijing airport on December 27.
The measures are particularly striking given that most of these countries – especially in the West – have long since reopened their borders and abandoned testing requirements as part of the transition to living with Covid. China responded on Wednesday by claiming its Covid situation was “under control” and accused Western media of “distorting” its recent policy changes.
In Europe, Italy – the first country on the continent to be hit by a widespread outbreak in 2020 – announced it would require Covid tests for all travelers arriving from China, with the health minister saying it was essential to identify “every variant… to protect the Italian population”.
European Union health security officials will also meet on Thursday to discuss the China outbreak and any “possible measures”, the EU Commission said on Twitter.
So are variants a risk?
Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledged the risk of a new variant emerging in “unvaccinated populations.”
“Even though (in China) they officially have 90% of the population vaccinated with two doses of inactivated vaccines, you still have a large percentage of elderly people who are not vaccinated… and many of the people who have been vaccinated have done so . more than six months ago, so their antibody levels are already very low,” he said. “So we cannot rule out the possibility that new variants may indeed appear in China and spread to parts of rest of the world.”
A US federal health official noted the speed of the outbreak in China, saying: “With so many people in China being infected in a short period of time, there is a chance and probability that a new variant will emerge.” .
US officials have also expressed concern about China’s lack of transparency about the recent surge in cases, particularly the lack of genome sequence information that could help detect new strains of the coronavirus.
However, GISEAD, a global database of viruses, said Chinese authorities had submitted more genomic information from recent samples — and that these appeared to match variants already circulating globally.
Karen Grepin, an associate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong, said a country’s best defense against potential variants was to focus on domestic policies that protect its own population — such as increasing vaccinations, maintaining of social distance and others. basic public health measures.
“In many parts of the world, the pandemic seems to be over… but at the end of the day, (these measures) are ultimately what prevent the transmission of the virus,” she said.
“If countries are at the point where they think those things are no longer important because, for example, they’ve developed so much population immunity, then why do they care about a few new cases coming from China?”
Are the measures effective?
Despite the potential danger, many health experts have widely criticized the new testing requirements as ineffective at best and alarmist at worst.
“I don’t see any compelling reason to justify this action,” said Huang, of the Council on Foreign Relations. “So far we have no evidence to support whether there are indeed such variants appearing on the territory of China.”
“I can understand the concerns because of the lack of transparency, because of the lack of sharing of the genomic sequence,” he added. “But even with a ban, we cannot prevent the spread of the virus. And assuming that there are indeed new variants emerging on the territory of China, we would only delay the spread, we will not prevent the spread of the virus in other parts of the world.”
Grepin echoed this point, saying: “In reality, we have no scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of these measures in practice.”
If an infectious variant emerges, it will likely enter the United States through other countries anyway, she said, noting that restrictions “did very little” when Omicron appeared last fall.
Pre-launch testing – which the US is demanding – is also only somewhat effective, as many new variants have a short incubation period, meaning “there will still be cases that slip through”, she added.
Political pressure and xenophobia
There are several reasons why countries might impose these restrictions despite their dubious use, Grepin said — one being the fear that Chinese Covid patients might flee elsewhere to seek treatment with hospitals at home completely overwhelmed.
But, she added, that is unlikely. The volume of travel coming from China is still extremely low, partly due to the limited number of flights. And with the speed at which Covid is spreading, it would pose a logistical challenge for infected patients to immediately obtain visas and book flights overseas.
Instead, the latest flurry of restrictions likely reflects “political pressure (on authorities) to look like they’re doing something,” she said. “We see one country do it and then other countries follow suit.”
Medical staff treat patients at a hospital in Jiangsu, China, on December 28.
CFOTO/Future Publishing/Getty Images
Experts are also warning that singling out China could raise the risk of greater anti-Chinese racism, as was seen at the start of the pandemic when Asians around the world faced discrimination and violent hate crimes.
China is not the only country seeing an increase in cases, Huang said. “I don’t see why China should be treated differently from other countries like Australia, for example, which is swimming in Covid,” he added.
The US is likely importing tens of thousands of cases from around the world even now, Grepin said, adding that 1 to 3% of all international travelers have Covid – so it doesn’t make sense to specifically target Covid coming from a place.
“We’ve seen this throughout the pandemic — when certain measures are targeted at people who come from a certain country, it reinforces stereotypes or beliefs that viruses come from certain parts of the world … It’s just not true.” she said.
Which countries are welcoming Chinese travelers?
In contrast, many countries have opened their doors to welcome them.
The tourism departments and embassies of France, Thailand, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Austria and Switzerland all posted messages on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, inviting Chinese tourists.
“Chinese friends, France welcomes you with open arms!” the French embassy wrote on Weibo. The National Tourism Administration of Thailand wrote: “Thailand has been waiting for you for three years!”
Many Weibo users celebrated their newfound freedom to travel, with the hashtag “Where to travel abroad next year” garnering close to 80 million views.
China alone contributed 51% of travel and tourism GDP in the Asia-Pacific region in 2018, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. And Chinese travelers typically accounted for 30% of all arrivals in Thailand.
CNN’s Cheng Cheng, Pierre Meilhan, Kevin Liptak, Valentina Di Donato, Eric Cheung, Emi Jozuka and CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed reporting.
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