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China pledges ‘final victory’ over COVID as outbreak raises global alarm

Virus spreading fast in China after policy U-turn
Patients lie on beds next to closed counters at the emergency department of Zhongshan Hospital, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Shanghai, China January 3, 2023. Reuters photo
Patients lie on beds next to closed counters at the emergency department of Zhongshan Hospital, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Shanghai, China January 3, 2023. Reuters photo

BEIJING: Global health officials tried to determine the facts of China’s raging COVID-19 outbreak and how to prevent a further spread as the Communist Party’s mouthpiece newspaper on Wednesday rallied citizens for a “final victory” over the virus.

China’s axing of its stringent virus curbs last month has unleashed COVID on a 1.4 billion population that has little natural immunity having been shielded from the virus since it emerged in the central city of Wuhan three years ago.

Many funeral homes and hospitals say they are overwhelmed, and international health experts predict at least one million deaths in China this year, but China has reported five or fewer deaths a day since the policy U-turn.

“That is totally ridiculous,” a 66-year-old Beijing resident who only gave his last name Zhang said of the official death toll.

“Four of my close relatives died. That’s only from one family. I hope the government will be honest with the people and the rest of the world about what’s really happened here.”

“China and the Chinese people will surely win the final victory against the epidemic,” the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, said in an editorial, rebutting criticism of China’s three years of isolation, lockdowns and testing that triggered historic protests late last year.

Having lifted the restrictions, Beijing is hitting back against some countries demanding that visitors from China show pre-departure COVID tests, saying the rules were unreasonable and lacked a scientific basis.

Japan became the latest country to require a pre-boarding negative test, joining the United States, Australia and others. European Union health officials are due to meet on Wednesday to discuss a coordinated response to China travel.

Willie Walsh, head of the world’s biggest airline association IATA, also criticised the what he described as knee-jerk“ measures that he said had proven to be ineffective in preventing the spread of COVID.

China, which has been largely shut off from the world since the pandemic began, will stop requiring inbound travellers to quarantine from Jan. 8. But it will still demand that arriving passengers get tested before they begin their journeys.

Data doubts

World Health Organization officials met Chinese scientists on Tuesday amid concern over the accuracy of China’s data on the spread and evolution of its outbreak.

The U.N. agency had invited the scientists to present detailed data on viral sequencing, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations.

The WHO would release information about the talks later, probably at a Wednesday briefing, its spokesperson said.

Last month, Reuters reported that the WHO had not received data from China on new COVID hospitalisations since Beijing’s policy shift, prompting some health experts to question whether it might be concealing the extent of its outbreak.

China reported five new COVID deaths on Tuesday, bringing the official death toll to 5,258, very low by global standards.

British-based health data firm Airfinity has said about 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from COVID.

There were chaotic scenes at Shanghai’s Zhongshan hospital where patients, many of them elderly, jostled for space on Tuesday in packed halls between makeshift beds where people used oxygen ventilators and got intravenous drips.

A Reuters witness counted seven hearses in the parking lot of Shanghai’s Tongji hospital on Wednesday. Workers were seen carrying at least 18 yellow bags used to move bodies.

Booking boom

With COVID disruptions slowing China’s $17 trillion economy to its lowest growth in nearly half a century, investors are now hoping for policy stimulus.

China’s yuan hovered at a four-month high against the dollar on Wednesday, after its finance minister pledged to step up fiscal expansion. The central bank has also flagged more policy support.

UBS analysts expect the “big bang” approach to re-opening to cause a “a deeper but shorter setback” to the economy, but also predicted that activity would recover from February.

Despite the new restrictions in some countries, interest in travelling abroad is reviving, Chinese media reported.

International flight bookings have risen 145% year-on-year in recent days, state-run China Daily reported, citing data from travel platform Trip.com.

Before the pandemic, global spending by Chinese tourists exceeded $250 billion a year but the number of flights to and from China is still a fraction of pre-COVID levels.

Thailand expects at least five million Chinese arrivals this year. More than 11 million Chinese visited Thailand in 2019, nearly a third of its total visitors.

But there are already signs that an increase in travel from China could pose problems abroad.

South Korea, which began testing travellers from China on Monday, said more than a fifth of the test results were positive.

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