© Reuters. Travelers stack their luggage at Beijing Capital International Airport, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Beijing, China December 27, 2022. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
By Sophie Yu and Joe Cash
SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese residents, quarantined from the rest of the world for three years due to COVID-19 restrictions, flocked to tourist sites on Tuesday before the border reopen, even as rising infections strain the health system and rattle the economy.
Zero-tolerance measures – from border closures to regular lockdowns – have negatively impacted China’s economy since the start of 2020, fueling last month’s biggest public discontent with the general public. record since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
His policy change this month means the virus is now spreading largely unchecked across the country of 1.4 billion people.
However, official statistics showed no new COVID deaths reported in the six days to Sunday, casting doubts among health professionals and the public about government data.
Doctors say hospitals are overcrowded with five to six times more patients than usual, most of them elderly. International health experts estimate millions of infections daily and predict at least a million deaths from COVID in China next year.
However, the authorities are determined to tear down the last vestiges of their COVID-free policy.
In a major step towards easing border restrictions cheered by Asian stock markets on Tuesday, China will stop requiring domestic travelers to be quarantined from January 8. , the National Health Commission said late Monday.
AmCham China President Colm Rafferty said of the plan to lift the quarantine restrictions: “In the end, it seems that China has turned the tide.
Data from travel platform Ctrip shows that within half an hour of the news, searches for popular cross-border destinations increased tenfold. Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and South Korea were the most searched, Ctrip said.
Data from another platform, Qunar, shows that within 15 minutes of the news, searches for international flights increased sevenfold, with Thailand, Japan and South Korea topping the list. .
China’s COVID management will also be downgraded to a less stringent Grade B from the current top-tier Grade A as of January 8, the health authority said, as it has become less toxic.
This change means that authorities will no longer be forced to isolate patients and their close contacts and lock down areas.
But with all the excitement about gradually returning to a pre-COVID lifestyle, the pressure is growing on China’s healthcare system, with doctors saying many hospitals are overwhelmed while Funeral home workers report a spike in demand for their services.
Nurses and doctors who have been asked to work while sick and retired health workers in rural communities are rehired to help, state media reported. Some cities have struggled to secure supplies of fever-reducing medicine.
“Look at funeral homes in different cities. I heard that we have to queue for three to five days to be cremated here,” complained one person from Shandong province in eastern China. complain on social media.
Although the world’s second-largest economy is expected to rebound strongly by the end of next year, once the initial wave of infections passes, it will be difficult in the coming weeks and months as people workers are getting sick.
Many stores in Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere have been forced to close in recent days as employees are unable to come to work, while some factories have given many of their workers leave at the end of the month. January.
“Concerns about temporary supply chain distortions remain due to the workforce impacted by the outbreak,” said JPMorgan (NYSE:NYSE) analysts. Tracing subway traffic in 29 Chinese cities shows that many people are restricting movement. when the virus spreads.
Data on Tuesday showed industrial profits fell 3.6% in January-November from a year earlier, compared with a 3.0% decline in January-October, reflecting the severity of the pandemic. importance of virus containment measures last month, including in key production regions.
The lifting of travel restrictions is positive for the $17 trillion economy, but strong warnings are needed.
“International tourism… is likely to pick up sharply, but it could take many more months before volumes return to pre-pandemic levels,” said Dan Wang, chief economist at Bank China.
“COVID is still spreading in most parts of China, significantly disrupting normal work schedules. Productivity declines significantly and inflationary pressures in the coming months could be severe due to increased demand. the surge will exceed the resilience of the supply.”