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China's 'great migration' kicks off in shadow of COVID

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SHANGHAI, Jan 7 (Reuters) – China on Saturday marked the first day of “chun yun”, the 40-day migration period of Lunar New Year journeys known before the pandemic as the world’s largest annual population, preparing to a huge increase in the number of travelers and the spread of COVID-19 infections.

This Lunar New Year holiday, which officially runs from January 1. 21, will be the first since 2020 without domestic travel restrictions.

Over the past month, China has seen the dramatic dismantling of its “zero-COVID” regime following historic protests against a policy that included frequent testing, restricted travel, mass shutdowns and heavy damage to the second Mondial economy.

Investors hope the reopening will eventually reinvigorate a $17 trillion economy that is seeing its weakest growth in nearly half a century.

But the abrupt changes have exposed much of China’s 1.4 billion people to the virus for the first time, triggering a wave of infections that is overwhelming some hospitals, emptying drugstore shelves of drugs and causing outbreaks to form. long queues at crematoriums.

The Department for Transport said on Friday it expects more than 2 billion passengers to take trips over the next 40 days, up 99.5% year-on-year and reaching 70.3% of the number of trips in 2019.

There was a mixed reaction online to the news, with some comments hailing the freedom to return to their hometown and celebrate the Lunar New Year with family for the first time in years.

Many others, however, said they would not travel this year, fearing infecting elderly relatives, a common theme.

“I dare not return to my hometown, lest I bring back the poison,” said one such comment on Weibo’s Twitter.

There are fears that the great migration of workers from cities to their home towns could cause an increase in infections in small towns and rural areas that are less well equipped with intensive care beds and ventilators to deal with them.

Authorities say to promote basic medical services, open more rural fever clinics and institute a “green lane” for high-risk patients, especially the elderly with underlying health conditions, to be transferred directly from villages to higher level hospitals.

“China’s rural areas are vast, the population is large, and the medical resources per capita are relatively insufficient,” National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said on Saturday.

“It is necessary to provide convenient services, speed up the vaccination of the elderly in rural areas and the construction of basic lines of defense.”


Some analysts now say the current wave of infections may have already peaked.

Ernan Cui, an analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing, cited several online surveys as indicating that rural areas were already more widely exposed to COVID infections than initially thought, with peak infection already reached in most. regions, noting that there was “not much difference between urban and rural areas”.

Sunday, China open its border with Hong Kong and will also end the requirement for travelers from overseas to self-quarantine. This effectively opens the door for many Chinese to travel abroad for the first time since borders were closed nearly three years ago, without fear of having to quarantine upon their return.

Jillian Xin, who has three children and lives in Hong Kong, said she was “incredibly excited” about the opening of the border, especially as it means seeing her family more easily in Beijing.

“For us, the opening of the border means that my children can finally meet their grandparents for the first time since the start of the pandemic,” she said. “Two of our children have never been able to see their grandfather, so we can’t wait for them to meet.”

The rise in the number of cases in China has caused concern internationally and more than a dozen countries now require COVID tests from travelers from China. The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that China’s COVID data underrepresented the number of hospitalizations and deaths from the disease.

Chinese officials and state media have defended the handling of the outbreak, downplaying the severity of the outbreak and denouncing overseas travel requirements for its residents.

On Saturday in Hong Kong, people who had made an appointment had to queue for about 90 minutes at a center for PCR tests needed to travel to countries including mainland China.


For much of the pandemic, China invested resources in an extensive PCR testing program to track and trace COVID-19 cases, but the focus is now on vaccines and treatment.

In Shanghai, for example, the city government on Friday announced the end of free PCR tests for residents from January 1. 8.

A circular issued Saturday by four government ministries signaled a reallocation of financial resources to treatment, outlining a plan for public finances to subsidize 60% of treatment costs until March 31.

Meanwhile, the sources told Reuters that China is in talks with Pfizer Inc. (PFE.N) to obtain a license that will allow domestic drugmakers to manufacture and distribute a generic version of US-based company Paxlovid’s COVID antiviral drug in China.

Many Chinese are trying buy the drug abroad and shipped it to China.

On the vaccine front, China’s CanSino Biologics Inc. (6185.HK) announced that it had begun trial production for its COVID mRNA booster vaccine, known as CS-2034.

China has relied on nine domestically developed vaccines approved for use, including inactivated vaccines, but none have been adapted to target the highly transmissible variant of Omicron and its offshoots are currently in circulation.

The overall vaccination rate in the country is over 90%, but the rate for adults who received boosters drops to 57.9% and 42.3% for those aged 80 and over, the data shows. government released last month.

China reported three new COVID deaths on the mainland on Friday, bringing its official virus death toll since the start of the pandemic to 5,267, one of the lowest in the world.

International health experts say Beijing’s narrow definition of COVID deaths does not reflect a true toll, and some are predicting more than a million deaths this year.

Reporting by Casey Hall in Shanghai, Julie Zhu in Hong Kong and Kevin Huang Additional reporting by Jindong Zhang Editing by Tony Munroe and Frances Kerry

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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