China will secure a “final victory” against COVID-19, state media pledged Wednesday, as global health officials continued to express concerns about the lack of transparency regarding the country’s current outbreak.
Multiple countries have imposed testing and other restrictions on Chinese travellers ahead of a planned border reopening next week, when the final elements of China’s zero-COVID policy will be dropped.
Starting Jan. 5, Canada will require arrivals from China, Hong Kong and Macao to provide a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours of departure. Japan, South Korea, the United States and the United Kingdom will have similar requirements, and a majority of European Union countries are poised to follow suit within days, according to a spokesman for the bloc.
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Experts are skeptical as to how effective such measures will be at actually stopping the spread of the virus – which is already endemic in most of the countries imposing the new measures. The hope is that they may pressure the Chinese government to share more data, after central health authorities stopped reporting daily case figures last month and changed how COVID-19 deaths are classified, discounting many fatalities that would be recorded in other countries.
On Jan. 3, China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention reported five new COVID-19 deaths, bringing the official total to 5,258, even as some models suggest the number of actual daily fatalities could already be in the thousands.
Airfinity, a U.K.-based health research firm, has predicted COVID-19 deaths in China will peak toward the end of January at about 25,000 a day, with about three million daily cases. The firm says its model – based on provincial data from across the country and findings from previous outbreaks in Hong Kong and Japan – expects 1.7 million deaths in China by the end of April.
A major concern for global health officials is the potential for a new, more virulent or dangerous COVID-19 variant to evolve in China as millions of people who have not been exposed to the virus become infected. Omicron, the current dominant strain, is considered less fatal than other variants, something Beijing has used to justify relaxing its stringent policies.
According to state media, health officials said China has never stopped monitoring prevailing variants in the country and would not let new ones go unreported. On Tuesday, Chinese scientists also met privately with representatives of the World Health Organization – amid mounting pressure from the UN body – to brief them on the situation.
“We want to see a more realistic picture of what is actually going on,” Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who sits on the WHO committee, said ahead of the meeting. “It is in the interests of China itself to come forward with more reliable information.”
Beijing has downplayed concerns about its current outbreak and pushed back against travel restrictions – despite long imposing its own testing requirements on arrivals from abroad. Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning this week called restrictions on Chinese travellers “unscientific” and accused unnamed governments of “manipulating pandemic measures for political goals.”
Bookings for flights have surged in China as the country prepares to lift quarantine requirements on Jan. 8, reopening borders that have been closed for most of the pandemic. And while some countries are wary of new variants, others are champing at the bit, eager to see the return of Chinese tourists.
On Chinese social media, the embassies and official tourism agencies of various countries posted messages encouraging Chinese visitors, with those considered the most welcoming – such as Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries that have suffered from the drop in travellers – receiving effusive praise from state media.
Next week sees the beginning of the month-long Lunar New Year travel rush, with millions journeying across China and the world for vacations or to visit family.
In 2020, there were just 14.76 million trips in China for the Lunar New Year period, compared with 2.98 billion the year before. That rose to 1.06 billion by 2022, when COVID-19 cases were largely under control and travel was relatively unrestricted. Some Chinese experts have predicted a higher-than-usual travel load this year, as people make up for missed opportunities.
While this will be an economic boost for many areas, the infections that could accompany it are a cause for concern, particularly in rural areas where health care systems may not be able to cope with major influxes of people.
“What we’re most worried about is that it’s been three years and people haven’t gone home to spend the New Year,” Jiao Yahui, a senior official with the National Health Commission, told state broadcaster CCTV. “There could be a retaliatory rush of people from the cities to the countryside.”
With files from Alexandra Li and Reuters.