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

  • Virus spreads rapidly in China after policy U-turn
  • Japan is the latest country to require checks on arrivals from China
  • EU meeting to discuss China’s travel policy
  • WHO is seeking information from Chinese scientists

BEIJING, Jan 4 (Reuters) – As global health officials scrambled to determine the facts of China’s Covid-19 outbreak and how to prevent further spread, the government’s mouthpiece newspaper on Wednesday rallied citizens for a “final victory” against the virus.

China’s strict virus restrictions were lifted last month on a population of 1.4 billion people with low natural immunity who have not been protected from the virus since it emerged in the city of Wuhan three years ago.

Funeral homes have reported an increase in demand for their services, hospitals are overflowing with patients, and international health experts are predicting at least one million deaths in China this year.

But officially, China has reported a small number of COVID deaths since the policy U-turn, and dismissed concerns about a disease previously aching to be eradicated by mass lockdowns even as the rest of the world opened up.

“China and the Chinese people will definitely win the final victory against the epidemic,” the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily said in an editorial, rejecting criticism of its tough anti-virus regime that sparked historic protests late last year.

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Now that those restrictions are being dismantled, China has been particularly critical of decisions by some countries to impose a COVID test requirement on their citizens, saying they are irrational and have no scientific basis.

Japan has become the latest country to mandate pre-departure Covid screening for travelers from China, following similar measures by the United States, Britain and South Korea.

Health officials from the 27-member European Union will meet on Wednesday to discuss a coordinated response to the China trip. Most EU countries favor pre-departure Covid testing for visitors from China.

China, largely shut off from the world since the pandemic began in late 2019, will stop quarantining inbound travelers from January 8. But it will require incoming passengers to be tested before they begin their journey.

Doubt the data

Meanwhile, WHO officials met with Chinese scientists on Tuesday amid concerns about the accuracy of China’s data on the spread and evolution of the outbreak.

The UN agency had invited scientists to present detailed information on viral sequencing and share information on hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations.

The WHO will release information on the talks later, possibly at a briefing on Wednesday, its spokesman said. A spokesman earlier said the agency expects a “detailed discussion” about the variants circulating in China and globally.

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Last month, Reuters reported that the WHO had not received data from China on new COVID hospital admissions since Beijing’s policy change, prompting some health experts to question whether the scale of the outbreak could be hidden.

China reported five new COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, compared with three a day earlier, bringing the official death toll to 5,258, very low by global standards.

But the toll is widely believed to be too high. Airfinity, a British-based health data firm, said 9,000 people are dying from Covid-19 in China every day.

At Shanghai’s Zhongshan Hospital, there were chaotic scenes on Tuesday as patients, many of them elderly, jockeyed for space in crowded halls between makeshift beds where they used oxygen ventilators and received intravenous drips.

As COVID disruptions have slowed China’s $17 trillion economy to its lowest growth in half a century, investors are now hoping policymakers will intervene to counter the slide.

China’s yuan hit a four-month high against the dollar on Wednesday as the finance minister vowed to step up economic expansion this year, days after the central bank said it would implement more policy support for the economy.

Booking boom

Despite some countries imposing restrictions on Chinese visitors, interest in traveling out of the world’s most populous country is growing, state media reported.

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Bookings for international flights from China rose 145% year-on-year, the state-run China Daily newspaper reported, citing data from travel platform

The number of international flights to and from China is still a fraction of pre-Covid levels. The government has announced that it will increase air services and make it easier for people to travel abroad.

Thailand, a top destination for Chinese tourists, expects at least five million Chinese this year, its tourism authority said on Tuesday.

More than 11 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand in 2019, accounting for one-third of all visitors.

But there are already signs that increased travel from China could cause problems overseas.

South Korea, which began testing travelers from China for Covid on Monday, said about a fifth of test results were positive.

Authorities on Wednesday were hunting for a Chinese national who tested positive but went missing while awaiting quarantine. The unidentified person faces up to a year in prison or a 10 million won ($7,840) fine.

Reporting by Bernard Orr and Liz Lee in Beijing, Brenda Goh in Shanghai, Hyeonhee Shin in Seoul and Kantaro Komiya in Tokyo; By John Geddy; Editing by Robert Birzel

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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