Zero-tolerance measures – from closed borders to frequent lockdowns – have plagued China’s economy since the start of 2020, fueling the continent’s biggest show of public discontent last month since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. .
His policy reversal this month means the virus is now spreading largely unchecked across the country of 1.4 billion people.
Official statistics, however, showed just one Covid death in the past seven days to Monday, stoking doubts among health experts and residents about government data. The numbers do not match the experience of countries with far fewer populations after reopening.
Doctors say hospitals are overwhelmed with five to six times more patients than usual, most of them elderly. International health experts estimate millions of daily infections and predict at least one million Covid deaths in China next year.
Nevertheless, the authorities are determined to dismantle the last vestiges of their zero-Covid policy.
On Tuesday, in a major step towards easing border restrictions cheered by Asian stock markets, China will stop requiring inbound travelers to self-quarantine from January 8. National Health Commission said late Monday.
“It finally feels like China has turned the corner,” AmCham China President Colm Rafferty said of the planned lifting of quarantine restrictions.
Data from travel platform Ctrip showed that half an hour after the news broke, searches for popular cross-border destinations had increased 10 times. Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and Korea South were the most wanted, Ctrip said.
Data from another platform, Qunar, showed that within 15 minutes of the news, searches for international flights jumped sevenfold, with Thailand, Japan and South Korea topping the list.
China’s Covid handling will also be downgraded to less stringent Category B from the current high-level Category A from January 8, the health authority said, as it has become less virulent.
The change means authorities will no longer be required to quarantine patients and their close contacts and lock down regions.
But for all the excitement of a gradual return to a pre-Covid lifestyle, there was mounting pressure on China’s healthcare system, with doctors saying many hospitals are overwhelmed while funeral home workers report an increase in demand for their services.
Nurses and doctors were asked to work while sick and retired medical workers from rural communities were rehired to help, state media reported. Some towns are struggling to stock up on anti-fever medication.
“Just look at funeral homes in different cities. I heard that we have to queue for three to five days for cremation here,” one person from eastern Shandong Province complained on social media. .
SHORT TERM PAIN
With the world’s second-largest economy set to rebound sharply later next year, once the initial shockwave of infections has passed, it will be battered in the weeks and months to come as workers fall ever harder sick.
Many stores in Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere have been forced to close in recent days as staff are unable to come to work, while some factories have already sent many of their workers on furlough for the Lunar New Year holiday in late January.
“Concern of temporary supply chain distortion remains as the workforce is impacted by infections,” JPMorgan analysts said in a note, adding that their tracking of subway traffic in 29 cities Chinese authorities have shown that many people are restricting their movements as the virus spreads. .
Tuesday’s data showed industrial profits fell 3.6% in January-November from a year earlier, compared with a 3.0% decline for January-October, reflecting the toll of virus measures put in place. place last month, including in the main manufacturing regions.
The lifting of travel restrictions is positive for the $17 trillion economy, but strong caveats apply.
“International travel…is likely to increase, but it may take many more months before volumes return to pre-pandemic levels,” said Dan Wang, chief economist at Hang Seng. Bank China.
“Covid continues to spread in most parts of China, significantly disrupting the normal work schedule. The loss of productivity is significant and inflationary pressures in the coming months could be acute as the surge in demand will exceed the resumption of the offer”.