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China plays down COVID outbreak with full-throttle holiday rush

  • Senior official says COVID is at ‘relatively low’ level
  • Hospital, critical cases down, authorities say
  • More than 2 billion trips expected for Lunar New Year
  • Some fear the travel season will see a rise in infections

BEIJING, Jan 20 (Reuters) – People across China crammed into trains and buses for one of its busiest travel days in years on Friday, fueling fears of further flare-ups in a coronavirus outbreak. Raging COVID-19 which officials say has peaked.

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

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

The policy reversal, which followed historic protests against the government’s tough anti-virus restrictions, unleashed COVID on a population of 1.4 billion who had been largely protected from the disease since it 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 firm Airfinity predicting COVID deaths could reach 36,000 a day on weekdays. next.

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

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

His comments came on the eve of one of the busiest travel days in China since the pandemic erupted in late 2019, as millions of city dwellers travel to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday which officially start on Saturday.

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

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

“Everyone is eager to go home. After all, we haven’t seen our families for so long,” a 30-year-old man named Li told Reuters at Beijing West Railway Station.

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

Gu Bei, a writer from Shanghai, said on social media platform Weibo that she had waited almost two weeks to have her mother cremated 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 “false information” about the spread of the virus that might cause a “grim” feeling during the Lunar New Year festivities.

“I heard that no dark and gloomy words are allowed in the new year. So let me mourn my mother now,” Gu said in his post, which did not specify his mother’s cause of death. .

Funeral home spending on items ranging from body bags to cremation ovens has increased in many provinces, 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 to rural areas where medical systems are weak, and that protecting the elderly – many of whom are not fully immunized – was a top priority.

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

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

But at a press conference on Thursday, health officials said the number of COVID patients presenting to hospital peaked with more than 40% fewer people being treated with critical conditions on January 17 compared to to a peak on January 5.

China 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 said they were discouraged from putting COVID on death certificates.

While China’s reopening has been chaotic, investors are hoping it will help revive its $17 trillion economy, placing bets that have taken Chinese stocks and its yuan currency to multi-month highs.

“Markets widely anticipate a surge in pent-up demand will be triggered by 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 after years of lockdowns and travel restrictions, could temper the rebound.

As international flights dwindle, Chinese tourists, a mainstay of the global retail and travel industry, are starting to travel again.

Malls from Macau to Bangkok are aiming to entice them with red lantern displays and special dances to mark the Year of the Rabbit – and deep discounts.

Chinese travel spending reached $255 billion in 2019, accounting for 33% of spending in the global luxury personal goods market, according to estimates from consultancy Bain.

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

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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