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China's COVID peak will last 2-3 months, hitting rural areas next: expert

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  • Peak of COVID wave seen lasting 2-3 months – epidemiologist
  • Older people in rural areas particularly at risk
  • People mobility indicators increase, but have not yet fully recovered
  • A case of the XBB subvariant discovered in China

BEIJING, Jan 13 (Reuters) – The peak of the Covid-19 wave in China is expected to last for two to three months and will soon spread across the vast interior where medical resources are relatively scarce, a leading Chinese epidemiologist has said.

Infections are expected to rise in rural areas as hundreds of millions travel to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday, which officially begins on January 21, known before the pandemic as the world’s largest annual migration of people. .

Last month, China abruptly abandoned the strict anti-virus regime of mass lockdowns that fueled historic nationwide protests in late November and finally reopened its borders this past Sunday.

The abrupt dismantling of restrictions has released the virus to 1.4 billion people in China, more than a third of whom live in regions where infections are past their peak, according to state media.

But the worst of the outbreak was not yet over, warned Zeng Guang, a former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a report published in local media Caixin on Thursday.

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

He said that a large number of people in the countryside, where medical facilities are relatively poor, were being left behind, including the elderly, sick and disabled.

The World Health Organization also warned this week about the risks arising from holiday travel.

The UN agency said China was heavily underreporting COVID deaths, although it is now providing more information about the outbreak.

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

Chinese virologists said on Friday they had discovered an infection with the Omicron XBB.1.5 subvariant, which was described by WHO scientists as the most transmissible subvariant so far after its rapid spread in the United States in December. There is still no evidence that it is more serious.

Health officials reported five or fewer deaths a day last month, numbers that are inconsistent with the long lines seen at funeral homes and the body bags seen leaving crowded hospitals.

China has not reported COVID death data since Monday. Officials said in December that they planned for monthly, rather than daily, updates going forward.

While international health experts have predicted at least 1 million COVID-related deaths this year, China has recorded just over 5,000 since the start of the pandemic, one of the lowest death rates in the world.

DIPLOMATIC TENSION

Concerns about data transparency were among the factors that led to more than a dozen countries requiring pre-departure COVID testing for travelers arriving from China.

Beijing, which has closed its borders from the rest of the world for three years and still requires all visitors to be tested before traveling, is opposing the restrictions.

Wu said the accusations by individual countries were “unreasonable, unscientific and unfounded”.

Tensions have risen this week with South Korea and Japan, with China retaliating by suspending short-term visas for its citizens. The two countries also limit flights, test travelers from China on arrival and quarantine positives.

Parts of China were returning to normal life.

In big cities, in particular, residents are increasingly on the move, pointing to a gradual, albeit slow, recovery in consumption and economic activity.

An immigration official said on Friday that an average of 490,000 daily trips had been made in and out of China since reopening on Jan. 8, just 26% of pre-pandemic levels.

Singapore-based Chu Wenhong was among those finally reunited with his parents for the first time in three years.

“They both got COVID and are quite old. I actually feel very lucky as it wasn’t very serious for them, but their health is not very good,” she said.

CAREFUL

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

However, December trade data released on Friday provided reason to be cautious about the pace of China’s recovery.

Jin Chaofeng, whose company exports wicker outdoor furniture, said he had no plans to expand or hire in 2023.

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

Next week’s data is expected to show China’s economy grew 2.8% in 2022, the second slowest since 1976, the final year of Mao Zedong’s decade-long Cultural Revolution, according to a Reuters poll.

Some analysts say last year’s lockdowns will leave permanent scars on China, including worsening its already bleak demographic outlook.

Growth is expected to recover to 4.9% this year, still well below the pre-pandemic trend.

Additional reporting by Beijing and Shanghai newsrooms; Written by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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