By Bernard Orr and Ellen Zhang
BEIJING, Jan 13 (Reuters) – The peak of the wave of COVID-19 in China is expected to last two to three months and soon spread across vast rural areas where medical resources are relatively scarce, a report said. prominent Chinese epidemiologist.
Infections are expected to rise in rural areas as hundreds of millions of people travel to their home cities for the Lunar New Year holidays, which officially begin on January 21, and which before the pandemic was known as the largest annual migration of people in the world.
China abruptly abandoned the strict COVID regime of mass lockdowns that fueled historic nationwide protests in late November last month, finally reopening its borders on Sunday.
The sudden rollback of restrictions has unleashed the virus among China’s 1.4 billion people, more than a third of whom live in regions where infections have already passed their peak, according to state media.
However, the worst of the outbreak is yet to pass, warned Zeng Guang, a former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, according to an article published Thursday in local media Caixin.
“Our priority attention has been focused on big cities. The time has come to focus on rural areas,” Zeng said.
In his view, large numbers of people are being left out in the countryside, where medical facilities are relatively poor, including the elderly, sick and disabled.
The authorities have stated that they are making efforts to improve the supply of antivirals throughout the country. Merck & Co’s molnupiravir COVID treatment is expected to be available in China from Friday.
The World Health Organization also warned this week of the risks of holiday travel.
The UN agency claimed that China was grossly undercounting COVID deaths, though it is now providing more information about its outbreak.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the country’s health authorities have had five technical exchanges with the WHO over the past month and these have been transparent.
In the past month, health authorities have reported five or fewer deaths a day, numbers that are at odds with the long lines seen at funeral homes and body bags pouring out of overcrowded hospitals.
The country has not communicated data on COVID fatalities since Monday. Officials said in December that they planned to release monthly updates instead of daily ones.
Although international health experts have predicted at least one million COVID-related deaths this year, China has reported just over 5,000 since the pandemic began, one of the lowest death rates in the world.
TENSIONS WITH JAPAN AND SOUTH KOREA
Concern over data transparency was one of the factors that prompted more than a dozen countries to require pre-departure COVID tests for travelers from China.
Beijing, which has closed its borders to the rest of the world for three years and continues to require all visitors to be tested before their travels, has said it strongly opposes such restrictions, calling it “discriminatory” and “without scientific basis.” “.
Tensions escalated this week with South Korea and Japan, and China retaliated by suspending short-stay visas for its citizens. The two countries also limit flights, test travelers from China upon arrival and quarantine those who have tested positive.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Friday that Tokyo will continue to demand transparency from China about its outbreak, calling Beijing’s retaliation one-sided, unrelated to COVID, and highly “regrettable.”
Some parts of China were returning to normal life.
In the big cities in particular, residents are increasingly on the move, pointing to a gradual recovery in consumption and economic activity this year. Even so, the traffic data and other indicators have not yet fully recovered the levels of a few months ago.
Although China’s reopening has given a boost to global financial assets after one of their worst years on record, US and European money leaders worry it could fuel further inflationary pressures.
However, December trade data released on Friday offer reason to be cautious about the pace of China’s recovery.
“As growth outside of China continues to slow, exports may continue to contract until mid-year,” said Zichun Huang, an economist at Capital Economics.
Jin Chaofeng, whose company in the eastern coastal city of Hangzhou exports rattan outdoor furniture, said it has no plans to expand or hire by 2023.
“With the lifting of the COVID restrictions, domestic demand is expected to improve, but not exports,” he said.
According to a Reuters poll, data next week is expected to show China’s economy grew just 2.8% in 2022 under the weight of repeated lockdowns, its second slowest year since 1976, the last of the Revolution. Mao Zedong’s Cultural War, which lasted for a decade and disrupted the economy.
Growth is forecast to pick up to 4.9% this year, still well below the trend of past decades.
Some analysts say last year’s lockdowns will leave permanent scars on China, among other things worsening its already bleak demographic picture.
(Additional reporting by the Beijing and Shanghai newsrooms; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing in Spanish by Flora Gómez)