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Excitement as China opens borders to quarantine-free travel | News on the coronavirus pandemic

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China has lifted pandemic restrictions on outbound travel, ending quarantine requirements for incoming travelers and with it, nearly three years of self-imposed isolation.

The first passengers to arrive under the new rules landed at airports in the southern cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen just after midnight on Sunday, according to state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN).

The 387 passengers on the flights from Singapore and Toronto in Canada were not subjected to COVID-19 tests upon arrival and did not have to undergo five days of quarantine in centralized government facilities, a we reported.

The easing of foreign travel restrictions marks the final dismantling of China’s strict “zero-COVID” policy.

Beijing has begun dismantling the sweeping strategy of mandatory quarantines, grueling lockdowns and frequent testing after historic protests against borders last month. But the abrupt changes have exposed much of its 1.4 billion population to the virus for the first time, triggering a wave of infections that is overwhelming some hospitals, emptying pharmacy shelves of drugs and causing outbreaks to form. long queues at crematoriums.

The lifting of quarantine rules 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 self-isolate in government facilities in their return.

China’s borders, however, remain closed to tourists, with foreigners only allowed to travel to the country for business or family visits.

Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, said that for many people in China, Sunday marked “the real end of the ‘zero-COVID’ policy”.

Indeed, before today, it was impossible to leave and enter China without having to undergo quarantine in government facilities and at home. So people feel very excited and quite liberated to go and travel outside the country,” she said. Popular travel sites say searches for outbound flights jumped around 80% from the same time last year, and the top destination was Thailand. Others include Japan, South Korea, the United States and Australia,” she added.

But the expected increase in the number of visitors has led more than a dozen countries to impose mandatory COVID-19 tests on travelers from China, citing concerns about Beijing “underrepresentation” infections and deaths from the disease, as well as the potential for the emergence of new, more virulent variants of the coronavirus.

Beijing called the travel restrictions “unacceptable”.

Despite the testing requirements, Zhang Kai, 28, told AFP news agency he was planning a trip to South Korea or Japan.

“I’m happy, now at last [I can] let go,” Zhang said.

Friends of his have already landed in Japan and been tested, he said, dismissing the testing requirement as a “small matter”.

In Tokyo, cartoonist Masashi Higashitani said he was delighted with China’s reopening and was brushing up on his Chinese skills to prepare for more holidaymakers. But he admitted to some trepidation.

I wonder if an influx of too many of them could overwhelm our capacity. I also fear that we have to be more careful with anti-virus measures,” he told AFP.

Experts say that while concerns about travelers from China were understandable, given the scale of the outbreak in the country, the likelihood of Chinese passengers causing a spike in infections in the countries they visit was minimal.

“People have reason to be concerned about the high volume of travelers from China,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank.

“But I don’t think it’s reasonable to consider these passengers sick or dangerous,” he told Al Jazeera. “So far, there is no evidence of new sub-variants emerging from China. And given that most of these destination countries have learned to exist with the virus, the influx of Chinese visitors is not going to cause an increase in cases in those countries.

The Chinese “Great Migration”

The lifting of outbound travel restrictions comes as China also marks Chunyun, the 40-day period of Lunar New Year travel, with millions expected to travel from cities hard hit by COVID to the countryside to visit loved ones, including vulnerable older people. family members.

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

The Department for Transport said on Friday it expects more than 2 billion passenger trips over the next 40 days, a 99.5% year-on-year increase and reaching 70.3% in 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, with concern over infecting elderly relatives a common theme.

“I dare not return to my hometown for fear of bringing back the poison,” one person wrote on microblogging site Weibo.

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 which are less well equipped with intensive care unit (ICU) beds and ventilators for deal.

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 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 also saw a easing restrictions on cross-border travel between mainland China and the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong.

Up to 50,000 Hong Kong residents will be able to cross the border daily at three land checkpoints after registering online, and another 10,000 will be allowed to enter by sea, air or bridge without having to register. in advance.

More than 410,000 people in total had signed up for the trip on Saturday, public broadcaster RTHK reported.

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 told Reuters news agency. “Two of our children have never been able to see their grandfather, so we can’t wait for them to meet.”

Teresa Chow, another Hong Kong resident, said she planned to visit her hometown in the eastern city of Ningbo.

“I’m so happy, so happy, so excited. I haven’t seen my parents for many years,” she said as she and dozens of other travelers prepared to cross into mainland China from the Lok Ma Chau checkpoint in Hong Kong. early Sunday.

“My parents are not in good health and I couldn’t go back to see them even when they had colon cancer, so I’m really happy to go back to see them now,” she added.

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