- Beijing dropped many anti-virus brakes last week
- Millions of people prepare to travel across the country for the Lunar New Year
- China stockpiles ventilators, drugs, tests for rural areas
- Waves of infection cloud short-term growth prospects
BEIJING/SHANGHAI, Dec 16 (Reuters) – China on Friday set out urgent plans to protect rural communities from COVID-19 as millions of city dwellers plan vacations for the first time in years after the government abandoned its strict curb block and travel system.
China’s move last week to begin aligning with a world that has widely opened up to live with the virus followed historic protests against President Xi Jinping’s “COVID-free” policies designed to eliminate COVID.
But the excitement that met this dramatic u-turn quickly gave way to concerns that China is unprepared for the impending wave of infections and the blow it could inflict on the world’s second-largest economy.
China reported 2,157 new symptomatic COVID-19 infections for Dec. 15 compared to 2,000 the previous day.
Official figures, however, don’t capture the full picture as testing has declined and run counter to signs of increased uptake in cities where long lines outside fever clinics and empty pharmacy shelves have become a common sight.
There is particular concern for inland China ahead of the local Lunar New Year holiday which will start on Jan. 22.
Rural areas are likely to be inundated with travelers returning to their towns and villages, who have had little exposure to the virus in the three years since the pandemic broke out.
China’s National Health Commission said on Friday it was ramping up vaccinations and building stockpiles of ventilators, essential medicines and testing kits in rural areas. He also advised travelers to reduce contact with elderly relatives.
Mainland China’s international borders remain largely closed, but recent decisions to abandon testing before domestic travel and disable apps that track people’s travel history have allowed people to move around the country.
One of China’s most populous provinces, Henan, has canceled all holidays for health workers through the end of March to ensure “a smooth transition” as COVID restrictions ease, state media reported on Thursday.
Several cities across the country of 1.4 billion people have also opened new vaccination sites to encourage the public to take booster shots, the state-run Global Times newspaper reported.
Hong Kong on Friday said its adult residents could receive a fifth injection, with infections on the rise in recent months.
“Do everything” was the message from China’s state regulator in a statement on Thursday which urged government-owned drugmakers to secure supplies of COVID-related medicines to meet “rapidly increasing” demand .
‘EVERYONE WILL UNDERSTAND IT’
Thanks to previously tough government controls, China has fared slightly better than many other countries during the pandemic over the past three years, but many Chinese have now resigned themselves to contracting the virus at some point.
“Everyone will understand, I guess,” a 29-year-old Beijing resident who asked to be identified by her surname Du told Reuters on the streets of Beijing.
Analysts fear China will pay a price for letting the virus spread rapidly in a population with no “herd immunity” and low vaccination rates among the elderly.
This has dented near-term growth prospects, although the opening should eventually revive China’s battered economy.
JPMorgan on Friday revised down its expectations for China’s 2022 growth to 2.8%, which is well below China’s official target of 5.5% and would mark one of its worst performances in nearly half a century .
China is bracing for “a period of transient pain,” the bank’s analysts said, adding they expect infections to rise after the Lunar New Year before the economy begins to recover in mid-2023.
President Xi, his ruling Politburo and senior government officials will hold their annual central economic work conference this week, sources told Reuters.
China’s main state planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission, said “strenuous efforts” were needed to sustain growth recovery amid an adverse external environment and the global economy’s loss of momentum.
The Chinese yuan rallied on Friday as traders remained optimistic that further measures to support the economy would emerge from the conference.
Reportage by Bernard Orr and Albee Zhang in Beijing, Brenda Goh and Jing Wang in Shanghai, Farah Master in Hong Kong, Stella Qiu in Sydney and Karin Strohecker in London; Written by John Geddie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore
Our standards: the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.