© Reuters. People wearing protective masks cross a street as China returns to work despite continuing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreaks in Shanghai, China, January 3, 2023. REUTERS/Aly Song
(Corrects final paragraph to show a fifth of test results were positive (not specifically a fifth of 2,189 arrivals))
By Bernard Orr and Liz Lee
(Reuters) -Global health officials tried to determine the facts of China’s raging COVID-19 outbreak and how to prevent a further spread as the government’s mouthpiece newspaper on Wednesday rallied citizens for a “final victory” over the virus.
China’s axing of its stringent anti-virus controls last month has unleashed COVID on a 1.4 billion population that has little natural immunity having been shielded from the virus since it emerged in its Wuhan city three years ago.
Funeral homes have reported a spike in demand for their services and international health experts predict at least one million deaths in China this year.
But officially, China has reported a small number of COVID deaths since the policy U-turn and has played down concerns about a disease that it was previously at pains to eradicate through mass lockdowns even as the rest of the world opened up.
“China and the Chinese people will surely win the final victory against the epidemic,” Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily said in an editorial, rebutting criticism of its tough anti-virus regime that triggered historic protests late last year.
As it now dismantles those restrictions, China has been particularly critical of decisions by some countries to impose a requirement for a COVID test on its citizens, saying they are unreasonable and lack scientific basis.
Health officials from the 27-member European Union are due to meet on Wednesday on a coordinated response to deal with implications of increased travel from China.
Most European Union countries favour pre-departure COVID testing for travellers from China, the European Commission said on Tuesday, following similar measures imposed by the United States, Britain, South Korea and others.
China, which has been largely shut off from the world since the pandemic began in late 2019, will stop requiring inbound travellers to quarantine from Jan. 8. But it will still demand that arriving passengers get tested before they begin their journeys.
Meanwhile, World Health Organization officials met Chinese scientists on Tuesday amid concerns over the accuracy of China’s data on the spread and evolution of its outbreak.
The U.N. agency had invited the scientists to present detailed data on viral sequencing and to share data on hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations.
The WHO would communicate later, probably at a Wednesday news briefing, its spokesperson said after the meeting. The spokesperson earlier said the agency expected a “detailed discussion” about circulating variants in China, and globally.
Last month, Reuters reported that the WHO had not received data from China on new COVID hospitalisations since Beijing’s policy shift, prompting some health experts to question whether it might be hiding information on the extent of its outbreak.
China reported five new COVID-19 deaths for Jan. 3, compared with three a day earlier, bringing the official death toll to 5,258, very low by global standards.
But the death toll is widely believed to be much higher. British-based health data firm Airfinity has said about 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from COVID.
Despite some countries imposing restrictions on Chinese visitors, interest in outbound travel from the world’s most populous country is cranking up, state media reported.
Bookings for international flights from China have risen by 145% year-on-year in recent days, the government-run China Daily newspaper reported, citing data from travel booking platform Trip.com.
The number of international flights to and from China is still a fraction of pre-COVID levels. The government has said it will increase flights and make it easier for people to travel abroad.
Thailand, a major destination for Chinese tourists, is expecting at least five million Chinese arrivals this year, its tourism authority said on Tuesday.
More than 11 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand in 2019, nearly a third of its total visitors.
But there are signs that an increase in travel from China could further spread the virus abroad.
Health authorities in South Korea, which began testing travellers from China for COVID on Monday, said more than a fifth of the test results so far were positive.