China’s sprawling and under-resourced countryside is beefing up medical services ahead of hundreds of millions of people visiting their families next month for the Lunar New Year holiday from cities where COVID-19 is rampant.
After three years of imposing the world’s strictest COVID regime, consisting of lockdowns and relentless testing, China has backtracked this month to live with the virus, leaving its fragile health system overwhelmed.
The lifting of restrictions, following widespread protests against them, has ushered in the largely unchecked spread of COVID, and is likely to infect millions of people a day, according to some international health experts.
China officially reported a new COVID death on Wednesday, up from three on Tuesday, but several countries and many epidemiologists believe the numbers are much higher and that more than a million people could die next year.
China has said only COVID-related deaths from pneumonia and respiratory failure are counted as COVID-related.
In the southwestern city of Chengdu, funeral homes were busy Wednesday night, and the flow of cars entering one of them, heavily guarded by security personnel, was constant.
A van driver working for the funeral home said the past few weeks had been especially busy and there were “a lot of people” inside.
Hospitals and funeral homes in major cities have come under intense pressure, but the main concern about the health system’s ability to cope with rising infections is focused on rural areas.
Every year, hundreds of millions of people, mostly workers from factories near the southern and eastern coasts, return to the countryside for the Lunar New Year, which begins on January 22.
According to authorities, the avalanche of travel is expected to last 40 days, from January 7 to February 15.
The state-run China Daily reported Thursday that China’s rural regions were beefing up their medical treatment capacity.
A hospital in rural Inner Mongolia, home to more than 100,000 people, was seeking bidders for a 1.9 million yuan ($272,308) contract to convert its wards into intensive care units.
Liancheng County Central Hospital in eastern Fujian province was looking for deals on ambulances and medical devices, from ventilators to electrocardiogram monitors.
According to a Reuters study, tenders for key medical equipment in December were two to three times higher than in previous months, suggesting hospitals across the country were scrambling to fill the gap.
The world’s second-largest economy is expected to suffer from a slowdown in factory output and domestic consumption in the near term, as workers and buyers fall ill.
The intensive contact services sector, which accounts for about half of China’s economic output, was hit by the country’s anti-virus restrictions, which forced many restaurants to close and travel restrictions. With the reopening in China, many service sector companies do not have the money to expand.
The reopening also raises the prospect of Chinese tourists returning to shopping streets around the world, a market once worth $255 billion a year worldwide. However, some countries have been surprised by the scale of the outbreak and are skeptical of Beijing’s COVID statistics.
The official death toll of 5,246 in China since the beginning of the pandemic contrasts with more than a million deaths in the United States. Hong Kong, ruled by China, has recorded more than 11,000 deaths.
The United States, India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan said they will require COVID testing for travelers from China. Britain was considering a similar measure, the Telegraph reported.
The United States issued a travel alert on Wednesday, advising Americans to “reconsider travel to China, Hong Kong and Macau” and citing “reports that the healthcare system is overwhelmed” along with the risk of new variants.
The main airport in the Italian city of Milan began testing passengers from Beijing and Shanghai on Dec. 26 and found that nearly half of them were infected.
China has dismissed criticism of its statistics as baseless and politically motivated attempts to smear its policies. He has also downplayed the risk of new variants, saying he expects the mutations to be more virulent but less severe.
The omicron variant remained the dominant strain in China, Chinese health authorities said this week.
Australia, Germany, Thailand and other countries said they would not impose additional travel restrictions for now.
For its part, China, whose borders have been virtually closed to foreigners since the beginning of 2020, will stop requiring incoming travelers to quarantine from January 8.