China COVID peak to last 2-3 months, hit rural areas next – expert

  • The peak of the COVID wave lasts 2-3 months – epidemiologist
  • Elderly people in rural areas are especially at risk
  • People’s mobility rates are rising, but not fully recovered
  • A case of the XBB subvariant found in China

BEIJING, Jan 13 (Reuters) – The peak of China’s COVID-19 wave will last two to three months and will soon engulf vast villages with relatively few medical resources, China’s top epidemiologist said.

Rural infections are expected to rise as hundreds of millions of people travel to their cities for the Lunar New Year holidays, which officially begin on January 21, known as the world’s longest human migration before the pandemic.

Last month, China abruptly abandoned its strict anti-virus regime in late November in response to a massive nationwide lockdown that sparked historic protests across the country, opening its borders last Sunday.

The dramatic lifting of restrictions has allowed the virus to spread to China’s 1.4 billion people, more than a third of whom live in areas where infections have peaked, state media reported.

Zeng Guang, a former chief epidemiologist at China’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the worst of the outbreak was not over, according to a report in local media on Thursday.

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“Our priority has shifted to big cities. It’s time to focus on rural areas,” Zeng said.

According to him, many people, including the elderly, sick and disabled, remain in rural areas where medical facilities are relatively poor.

The World Health Organization also warned this week about the dangers of holiday travel.

The United Nations agency says China is underreporting deaths from COVID, but it is now releasing more information about the outbreak.

“Since the outbreak, China has shared relevant information and data with the international community in an open, transparent and responsible manner,” Foreign Ministry official Wu Xi told reporters.

On Friday, Chinese virologists reported that they had identified an infection with the Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5, which WHO scientists identified as the most contagious subvariant after its rapid spread in the United States in December. There is no evidence that it is more severe.

Health authorities have been reporting five or fewer deaths per day for the past month, numbers that do not match the long queues at funeral homes and body bags leaving overcrowded hospitals.

China has not released data on COVID deaths since Monday. Officials said in December that they planned monthly updates rather than daily updates.

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Although international health experts have predicted at least 1 million deaths from COVID-19 this year, China has reported just over 5,000 since the pandemic began, one of the lowest death rates in the world.

DIPLOMATIC PROBLEMS

Concerns about data transparency were among the factors that prompted more than a dozen countries to require travelers from China to undergo pre-departure COVID tests.

Beijing, which has closed its borders with the rest of the world for three years and still requires all visitors to be screened before travel, is against the curb.

Wu said the accusations by some countries were “absurd, unscientific and baseless”.

This week, tensions with South Korea and Japan escalated, with China retaliating by suspending short-term visas for their citizens. The two countries will also restrict flights, test travelers from China and quarantine positive ones.

Some parts of China have returned to normal life.

In big cities in particular, residents are moving more and more, signaling a gradual but still slow recovery in consumption and economic activity.

An immigration official said on Friday that China had averaged 490,000 daily trips since it opened on Jan. 8, just 26% of pre-pandemic levels.

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Among those who were reunited with their parents for the first time in three years was Singapore-based Chu Wenhong.

“They both have COVID and are quite old. Actually, I feel lucky because it wasn’t too serious for them, but their health is not very good,” he said.

TO WARN

While China’s reopening has boosted global financial assets, policymakers around the world worry it could revive inflationary pressures.

However, December trade data released on Friday gave cause for caution over the pace of China’s recovery.

Jin Chaofeng, whose company exports rattan outdoor furniture, said it has no plans to expand or hire for 2023.

“With the lifting of COVID restrictions, domestic demand will improve, but not exports,” he said.

A Reuters poll next week shows China’s economy growing 2.8% in 2022, the second-slowest since 1976, the last year of Mao Zedong’s decade-long Cultural Revolution.

Some analysts say last year’s blockade will leave a lasting mark on China, including worsening its already bleak demographic outlook.

Growth has since picked up to 4.9% this year, well below the pre-pandemic trend.

Additional reports from Beijing and Shanghai editorial offices; Written by Marius Zacharias; Edited by Raju Gopalakrishnan

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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