China is downplaying the COVID outbreak with holiday rush in full swing

  • Top official says COVID at ‘relatively low’ level
  • Hospital, critical cases are down, authorities say
  • More than 2 billion trips are expected during the Lunar New Year
  • Some fear that infections may increase during the travel season

BEIJING, Jan. 20 (Reuters) – People across China thronged trains and buses on Friday for one of the busiest travel days in years, fueling fears of new spikes in a raging COVID-19 outbreak that officials say has reached its peak.

In comments reported by state media late Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan said the virus was at “relatively low” levels, while health officials said the number of COVID patients hospitalized and with critical conditions was declining.

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 reversal, which followed historic protests against the government’s strict anti-virus measures, unleashed COVID on a population of 1.4 billion people who had been largely protected from the disease since the disease emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Some health experts expect more than a million people to die from the disease in China this year, with UK health data agency Airfinity predicting that the number of COVID deaths 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 from the state-run Xinhua news agency.

“The number of critical patients in hospitals is steadily decreasing, although the rescue mission remains arduous.”

Her comments came on the eve of one of China’s most hectic travel days since the outbreak of the pandemic in late 2019, as millions of city residents travel to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday that officially begins on Saturday.

More than 2 billion trips across China are expected to take place between January 7 and February 15, the government estimates.

Excited passengers loaded with luggage and boxes of gifts boarded the train on Friday, heading for much-anticipated family reunions.

“Everyone is eager to go 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 Weibo social media platform that she had waited nearly two weeks for her mother’s cremation and the funeral home could not tell her when the service would be scheduled.

China’s internet regulator said this week it would censor any “fake information” about the spread of the virus that could create “gloomy” sentiment during the Lunar New Year festivities.

“I heard that dark and gloomy words are not allowed during the New Year. Then let me mourn my mother now,” Gu said in her post, which did not specify her mother’s cause of death.

Spending by funeral homes on items from body bags to cremators has soared in many counties, documents show, one of many indications of COVID’s deadly toll.

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President Xi Jinping said this week he was concerned about an influx of travelers into rural areas with weak medical systems, and that protecting the elderly – many of whom are not fully vaccinated – was a top priority.

China reported a major increase in COVID hospitalizations in the week through Jan. 15, to the highest since the pandemic began, according to a report from the World Health Organization on Thursday.

Hospital admissions rose 70% from the previous week to 63,307, according to WHO, citing data submitted by Beijing.

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

China has said nearly 60,000 people with COVID died in hospital between December 8 and January 12. However, that toll excludes those who died at home, and some doctors have said they are discouraged from putting COVID on death certificates.

While China’s reopening has been chaotic, investors hope it will help revive its $17 trillion economy.

“Markets are widely expecting a wave of pent-up demand from the reopening of the Chinese economy,” Nomura analysts said in a note.

They warned that a drop in household wealth and a rise 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 mainstay of the global retail and travel industry, are starting to travel again.

Malls from Macau to Bangkok try to lure them in with displays of red lanterns and special dances in honor of the Year of the Rabbit – and hefty discounts.

According to estimates from the Bain consultancy, China’s travel spending had grown to $255 billion in 2019, accounting for 33% of spending in the global luxury personal goods market.

Reporting by Liz Lee, Alessandro Diviggiano, Bernard Orr and the Beijing newsroom; Written by John Geddie; Edited by Robert Birsel

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.

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