- Beijing lifted many anti-virus restrictions last week
- Millions of people traveled across the country to celebrate the Lunar New Year
- China has ventilators, drugs, tests for rural areas
- Waves of infection dampen near-term growth prospects
BEIJING/SHANGHAI, Dec 16 (Reuters) – China on Friday rolled out emergency plans to protect rural communities from COVID-19 as millions of city dwellers planned their first vacations after the government abandoned its strict lockdown and travel restrictions. curbs.
China’s last week’s effort to come to terms with a world that has opened up to living with the virus follows historic protests against President Xi Jinping’s “zero-COVID” policy aimed at eradicating the virus.
But excitement over this sharp turnaround quickly gave way to fears that China was unprepared for the coming wave of infections and that it could hit the world’s second-largest economy.
China reported 2,157 new symptomatic COVID-19 infections as of Dec. 15, up from 2,000 the previous day.
Official figures, however, do not paint the full picture as testing has fallen and are at odds with signs of a widespread outbreak in cities where long queues outside fever clinics and empty pharmacy shelves are commonplace.
Ahead of the local Lunar New Year celebrations that begin on January 22, there is particular concern for China’s interior.
In the three years since the pandemic began, travelers returning to their towns and villages, which have had less exposure to the virus, may flood rural areas.
China’s National Health Commission said on Friday it was ramping up vaccinations and building up stockpiles of ventilators, essential drugs and test kits in rural areas. It also advised travelers to minimize contact with elderly relatives.
Australia is “ready” to continue its COVID-19 cooperation, a spokesman for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said on Friday, a day after the White House said the United States was ready to help if China asked. providing medical equipment and conducting joint scientific research.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not directly respond to questions about the U.S. proposal, but said Thursday that China has “institutional advantages” in dealing with COVID.
Mainland China’s international borders remain largely closed, but recent decisions to waive domestic travel testing and disable apps that track people’s travel history have freed people to move around the country.
One of China’s most populous provinces, Henan, late on Thursday canceled all holidays for medical workers until the end of March to ensure a “smooth transition” as COVID restrictions are eased.
According to the state newspaper Global Times, new vaccination sites have been opened to vaccinate the population in several cities of the country of 1.4 billion people.
Hong Kong said on Friday its adult residents could get a fifth shot, as infections there have surged in recent months.
In a statement late on Thursday, China’s state-owned asset regulator “Go all out” urged state-run drugmakers to stock up on COVID-related drugs to meet “rapid growth” in demand.
Thanks to the government’s previously unrelenting controls, China has had an easier time with the pandemic than many other countries over the past three years, but many Chinese are now resigned to contracting the virus at some point.
“I think everyone gets it,” a 29-year-old Beijing resident, who asked not to be identified as Du, told Reuters on the streets of Beijing.
Analysts fear China will pay the price for the virus’s rapid spread to a population that lacks “herd immunity” and has low vaccination rates among the elderly.
This has dampened growth prospects for the near term, although opening up China’s economy should eventually revive it.
On Friday, JPMorgan revised its expectations for China’s growth in 2022 to 2.8%, below the country’s official target of 5.5% and marking one of the worst performances in nearly half a century.
Analysts at the bank said China was bracing for a “transitional disease period” and expected infections to spike after the Lunar New Year before the economy recovers in mid-2023.
President Xi, his ruling Politburo and senior officials are holding the annual Central Economic Work Conference this week, sources told Reuters.
China’s top state planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission, said an unfavorable external environment and a slowing global economy would require “difficult efforts” to support a recovery in growth.
China’s yuan strengthened on Friday as traders remained optimistic that more measures to support the economy would come from the conference.
Reporting by Bernard Orr and Albie Zhang in Beijing, Brenda Guo and Jing Wang in Shanghai, Farah Master in Hong Kong, Stella Qiu and Kirsty Needham in Sydney, and Karin Strohecker in London; Written by John Geddy and Greg Torode; Edited by Simon Cameron-Moore and Jacqueline Wong
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