China downplays COVID outbreak with holiday fever in full force

China downplays COVID outbreak with holiday fever in full force

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  • Senior official says COVID is at “relatively low” level
  • Hospital, critical cases down, officials say
  • More than 2 billion trips are expected during the Lunar New Year
  • Some fear that the travel season could lead to a spike in infections

BEIJING, Jan 20 (Reuters) – People across China crowded onto trains and buses for one of the busiest days of travel in years on Friday, fueling fears of new waves in the raging COVID-19 epidemic, which officials said was reached its peak.

In comments reported by state media late Thursday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said the virus was at a “relatively low” level, while health officials said the number of hospitalized and critical COVID patients was falling.

But there are widespread doubts about China’s official account of an outbreak that has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes since Beijing abandoned strict COVID controls and mass testing last month.

That policy U-turn, which followed historic protests against the government’s strict anti-virus restrictions, unleashed COVID among a population of 1.4 billion that had been largely protected from the disease since it emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Some health experts expect more than one million people to die from the disease in China this year, with UK-based health data firm Airfinity predicting that deaths from COVID could reach 36,000 a day next week.

“Recently, the overall pandemic in the country is at a relatively low level,” Sun said in comments reported by the state-run Xinhua news agency.

“The number of critically ill patients in hospitals is steadily decreasing, although the rescue mission is still difficult.”

She was speaking on the eve of one of China’s most frantic travel days since the start of the pandemic, when millions of city dwellers travel to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday, which officially begins on Saturday.

More than 2 billion trips are expected to be made in China between January 7 and February 15, the government predicted.


Excited passengers laden with luggage and gift boxes boarded trains on Friday bound for long-awaited family reunions.

“Everyone can’t wait to get home. After all, we haven’t seen our families for so long,” a 30-year-old surnamed Li told Reuters at Beijing’s West Railway Station.

But for others, the holiday is a reminder of lost loved ones.

Gu Bei, a writer from Shanghai, said on the social media platform Weibo that she had waited nearly two weeks for her mother to be cremated and that the funeral home could not tell her when the service would be scheduled.

China’s internet regulator said this week it would censor any “false information” about the spread of the virus that could fuel a “gloomy” mood during Lunar New Year celebrations.

“I heard that dark and gloomy words are not allowed in the new year. So let me mourn my mother now,” Gu said in his post, which did not specify the cause of his mother’s death.

Funeral home costs for items from body bags to cremation ovens have soared in many provinces, documents showone of several indications of the deadly toll of COVID.

China said nearly 60,000 people with COVID died in hospital between December 8 and January 12. That amount, however, excludes those who died at home, and some doctors said they were reluctant to put the COVID of death certificates.


President Xi Jinping said this week that it was disturbed about the influx of travelers to rural areas with weak medical systems and that protecting the elderly – many of whom are not fully vaccinated – is a top priority.

The of the World Health Organization The director of immunization, Kate O’Brien, praised China on Friday for making rapid progress in vaccinating older people with COVID vaccines and boosters since the lifting of virus controls last month.

However, she added that it was “difficult” for some older people to understand the vaccination policy changes as they had previously been advised not to seek protection.

A WHO report on Thursday said China reported a big jump in hospitalizations for COVID in the week to January 15, to the highest level since the pandemic began. Hospitalizations rose 70 percent from the previous week to 63,307, according to the WHO, citing data provided by Beijing.

But at a news conference Thursday, health officials said the number of COVID patients reporting to hospital had peaked, with more than 40 percent fewer people being treated for critical conditions on Jan. 17 compared to the Jan. 5 peak.

While China’s reopening has been chaotic, investors hope it will help revive its $17 trillion economy, making bets that have lifted Chinese stocks and the yuan to multi-month highs.

“Markets widely expect a surge in pent-up demand to be unleashed by the reopening of the Chinese economy,” Nomura analysts said in a note.

They warned that a drop in household wealth and a surge in youth unemployment, a hangover from years of lockdowns and travel restrictions, could dampen the recovery.

While international flights are in short supply, Chinese tourists, a much-missed pillar of the global retail and travel industry, are starting to travel again.

Malls from Macau to Bangkok strive for entice them with red lanterns and special dances to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit – and big discounts.

Chinese travel spending grew to $255 billion in 2019, accounting for 33 percent of spending in the global luxury personal goods market, according to estimates by consulting firm Bain.

Reporting by Liz Lee, Alessandro Divigiano, Bernard Orr and the Beijing newsroom Writing by John Geddy and Francis Carey Editing by Robert Birsell and Chizu Nomiyama

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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