- The virus is spreading rapidly in China after the policy change
- The latest country in Japan to require tests from China arrivals
- European Union meeting to discuss Chinese travel policy
- WHO seeks data from Chinese scientists
BEIJING (Reuters) – Global health officials struggled to establish the realities of the novel coronavirus outbreak in China and how to prevent further spread, as the government’s mouthpiece newspaper on Wednesday rallied the public for “final victory” against the virus.
China’s reversal of its strict virus restrictions last month unleashed COVID on the 1.4 billion people who have little natural immunity having been protected from the virus since it emerged in the city of Wuhan three years ago.
Funeral homes are reporting a surge in demand for their services, hospitals are overwhelmed with patients, and international health experts predict at least 1 million deaths in China this year.
But officially, China has reported a small number of COVID deaths since the policy shift, and has played down concerns about a disease that once took pains to eradicate through mass lockdowns even as the rest of the world opened up.
“China and the Chinese people will surely win the final victory over the epidemic,” the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, said in an editorial, refuting criticism of its strict anti-virus regime that sparked historic protests late last year.
As it is now dismantling those restrictions, China has been particularly critical of some countries’ decisions to impose a requirement for COVID testing on their citizens, saying they are unreasonable and lack scientific basis.
Japan has become the latest country to mandate a pre-departure COVID test for travelers from China, following similar measures by the United States, Britain, South Korea and other countries.
Health officials from the 27-nation European Union are scheduled to meet on Wednesday to discuss a coordinated response to travel to China. Most EU countries prefer a pre-departure COVID test for visitors from China.
China, which has been largely cut off from the world since the pandemic began in late 2019, will stop requiring incoming travelers to quarantine from January 8, but will still require incoming passengers to be tested before starting their flights.
Meanwhile, World Health Organization officials met with Chinese scientists on Tuesday amid concerns about the accuracy of Chinese data on the spread and evolution of the outbreak.
The UN agency has called on scientists to provide detailed data on viral sequences and to share data on hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations.
The WHO spokeswoman said the WHO would release information about the talks at a later date, possibly at a news conference on Wednesday. The spokesperson said earlier that the agency expects a “detailed discussion” about circulating variants in China, and globally.
Last month, Reuters reported that the World Health Organization had not received data from China on new hospitalizations for the coronavirus since Beijing’s policy shift, prompting some health experts to wonder if it was covering up the extent of the outbreak.
China reported five new COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, compared to three the previous day, bringing the official death toll to 5,258, which is very low by global standards.
But the death toll is widely believed to be much higher. Britain-based health data company Airfinity said around 9,000 people in China likely die each day from COVID.
There were chaotic scenes at Shanghai’s Zhongshan Hospital as patients, many of them elderly, crowded into space on Tuesday in halls crammed between makeshift beds as people used ventilators and were given intravenous drips.
With the COVID turmoil causing China’s $17 trillion economy to slow to its lowest growth in nearly half a century, investors are now hoping policymakers will step in to counter the slide.
The Chinese yuan hovered at a four-month high against the dollar on Wednesday, after China’s finance minister pledged to intensify fiscal expansion this year, days after the central bank said it would implement more political support for the economy.
Although some countries are imposing restrictions on Chinese visitors, interest in traveling abroad from the world’s most populous country is growing, state media reported.
State-run newspaper China Daily, citing data from travel platform Trip.com, reported that bookings for international flights from China rose 145% year-on-year in recent days.
The number of international flights to and from China is still a fraction of pre-COVID levels. The government said it would increase trips and make it easier for people to travel abroad.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand said on Tuesday that Thailand, a major destination for Chinese tourists, expects at least five million Chinese to arrive this year.
More than 11 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand in 2019, nearly a third of its total visitors.
But there are already signs that increased travel from China could cause problems abroad.
South Korea, which began testing travelers from China for COVID on Monday, said more than a fifth of the test results had been positive.
On Wednesday, authorities there were searching for a Chinese national who tested positive for the virus but went missing while awaiting quarantine. The person, who has not been identified, could face up to a year in prison or fines of 10 million won (US$7,840).
Additional reporting by Bernard Orr and Liz Lee in Beijing, Brenda Goh in Shanghai, Hyunhee Shin in Seoul, and Kantaro Komiya in Tokyo; Written by John Geddy. Edited by Robert Purcell
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