- China to relax border restrictions from January 8
- Online flight searches increase: travel platforms
- The wave of COVID overwhelms hospitals and weighs on the economy
BEIJING, Dec 27 (Reuters) – The Chinese, cut off from the rest of the world for three years by strict COVID-19 restrictions, flocked to travel sites on Tuesday ahead of borders reopening next month, even as rising infections put pressure on the healthcare system. and rocked the economy.
Zero-COVID measures implemented since early 2020, from border closures to frequent lockdowns, last month fueled the biggest show of public discontent in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
Its subsequent abrupt U-turn on sidewalks, which has hit the $17 trillion economy, the world’s second-biggest, means the virus is now spreading largely unchecked across the country of 1.4 billion people.
However, official statistics showed only one death from COVID in the seven days to Monday, raising questions among health experts and residents about the government data. The numbers are inconsistent with the experience of much less populous countries after they reopened.
Doctors say hospitals are overwhelmed with five to six times more patients than usual, most of them elderly. International health experts estimate millions of daily infections and predict at least one million COVID deaths in China next year.
However, the Chinese authorities are determined to dismantle the last vestiges of their zero COVID policies.
In a major step toward freer travel, hailed by global stock markets on Tuesday, China will stop requiring incoming travelers to self-quarantine from January 8, the National Health Commission (NHC) said. English) on Monday night.
“It finally feels like China has turned the corner,” AmCham China President Colm Rafferty said of the impending lifting of the quarantine rule.
There are no official restrictions on Chinese people traveling abroad, but the new rule will make it much easier for them to return home.
Data from travel platform Ctrip showed that half an hour after the news broke, searches for popular cross-border destinations had increased 10-fold. Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and South Korea were the most searched for, Ctrip said.
Data from Trip.com showed outbound flight bookings were up 254% early Tuesday from the day before.
China’s National Immigration Administration said Tuesday it will resume processing passport applications from Chinese citizens seeking to travel abroad and approve mainland residents’ visits to Hong Kong.
China will also resume implementation of a policy allowing visa-free transit of up to 144 hours for travelers. The extension or renewal of foreign visas will also be restored, the immigration administration added.
Shares of global luxury goods groups, which rely heavily on Chinese shoppers, rose on Tuesday as travel restrictions were eased. China accounts for 21% of the 350 billion euro global luxury goods market.
However, ordinary Chinese and travel agents suggested that a return to some semblance of normalcy would take a few months yet, given COVID concerns and more careful spending due to the impact of the pandemic.
Moreover, once the border with Hong Kong reopens next month, mainland Chinese will be able to receive mRNA vaccines made by BioNTech, which are considered more effective than domestically developed options available on the mainland.
China’s COVID classification will also be downgraded to the less stringent Category B from the current higher-level Category A from January 8, the health authority said, meaning authorities will no longer be required to quarantine people. patients and close contacts and impose lockdowns.
But for all the excitement of a gradual return to a pre-COVID way of life, there has been mounting pressure on the healthcare system, with doctors saying many hospitals are overwhelmed while funeral homes report a surge in demand for its services.
Nurses and doctors were asked to work while sick and retired medical workers in rural communities were rehired to help, state media reported. Some cities have been struggling to secure supplies of fever medicine.
“Some places are facing great pressure in hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units,” NHC official Jiao Yahui told reporters.
While the Chinese economy is expected to rebound strongly late next year, it will have a rough ride in the coming weeks and months as workers get increasingly sick.
Many stores in Shanghai, Beijing and other places have closed in recent days as staff have been unable to come to work, while some factories have already sent many of their workers on leave for the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of January.
“Concerns over a temporary supply chain disruption remain as the workforce is affected by infections,” the JPMorgan analysts said in a note, adding that their monitoring of underground traffic in 29 cities showed that many People were restricting their movements as the virus spread.
Data on Tuesday showed industrial profits fell 3.6% in January-November from a year earlier, down from a 3.0% drop in January-October, reflecting the cost of antivirus restrictions in place last month. past, even in major manufacturing regions.
Officials said they would increase financial support for small and private businesses in the hardest-hit tourism and restaurant sectors.
The lifting of travel restrictions is positive for the economy, but strong caveats apply.
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said his country would require a negative COVID test for travelers from mainland China. The government would also limit the increase in airline flights to China, he said.
“International travel… will likely increase, but it may be many months before volumes return to pre-pandemic levels,” said Dan Wang, chief economist at Hang Seng Bank China.
“COVID is still spreading in most of China, greatly disrupting normal working hours. The loss of productivity is significant.”
Reports from the Beijing and Shanghai offices and Chen Lin in Singapore; Written by Marius Zaharia and Sumeet Chatterjee; Edited by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel, and Frank Jack Daniel
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