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China downplays COVID outbreak with holiday in full swing

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  • Top official says COVID at ‘relatively low’ level
  • Hospital, critical cases falling, officials say
  • More than 2 billion trips expected for Lunar New Year
  • Some fear the travel season could increase infections

BEIJING, Jan 20 (Reuters) – People across China flocked to trains and buses for one of the busiest travel days in years on Friday, fueling fears of further outbreaks of a raging COVID-19 outbreak that authorities said to have reached its peak.

In comments reported by state media on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan said the virus was at a “relatively low” level, while health officials said the number of COVID patients in hospital and in conditions criticism was waning.

But there are widespread doubts about China’s official account of an outbreak that has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes since Beijing abandoned tight COVID controls and mass testing last month.

That policy shift, which followed historic protests against the government’s tough anti-virus restrictions, unleashed COVID on a population of 1.4 billion that had been largely protected from the disease since it emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Some health experts expect more than a million people to die from the disease in China this year, with British health data firm Airfinity predicting that COVID deaths could reach 36,000 a day next week.

“Recently, the overall pandemic in the country is at a relatively low level,” Sun said in comments carried by state news agency Xinhua.

“The number of critical patients in hospitals is steadily decreasing, although the rescue mission is still heavy.”

She spoke on the eve of one of the most frenetic travel days in China since the start of the pandemic, as millions of city residents travel to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday, which officially begins on Saturday.

More than 2 billion trips are expected to take place in China between January 7 and February 15, the government estimates.

‘ANXIOUS TO GO HOME’

Enthusiastic passengers laden with luggage and boxes of gifts boarded trains on Friday, heading for long-awaited family gatherings.

“Everyone is looking forward to going home. After all, we haven’t seen our families for so long,” Li, 30, whose surname is called, told Reuters at Beijing West Railway Station.

But for others, the holiday is a reminder of lost loved ones.

Gu Bei, a writer from Shanghai, said on social media platform Weibo that she had been waiting nearly two weeks for her mother to be cremated and that the funeral home could not tell her when the service would be scheduled.

China’s internet regulator said this week it would censor any “false information” about the spread of the virus that could cause a “somber” feeling during the Lunar New Year festivities.

“I heard that dark and dark words are not allowed during the new year. So let me mourn my mother now,” Gu said in her post, which did not specify her mother’s cause of death.

Funeral home spending on items from body bags to cremation ovens has surged in many provinces, documents show, one of several indications of the COVID death toll.

China said nearly 60,000 people with COVID died in hospital between Dec. 8 and Jan. 12. However, that number excludes those who died at home, and some doctors have said they are discouraged from putting COVID on death certificates.

REPRESSED DEMAND

President Xi Jinping said this week that he was concerned about an influx of travelers to rural areas with weak medical systems and that protecting the elderly – many of whom are not fully vaccinated – was a priority.

World Health Organization immunization director Kate O’Brien praised China on Friday for making rapid progress in vaccinating the elderly with COVID vaccines and boosters since lifting antivirus controls last month.

However, she added that some seniors found it “difficult” to understand the changes to their vaccination policy, as they had already been advised not to seek protection.

A WHO report on Thursday said China reported a big jump in hospitalizations for COVID in the week to Jan. 15, to the highest level since the start of the pandemic. Hospitalizations rose 70% in the previous week to 63,307, according to the WHO, citing data provided by Beijing.

But at a press conference on Thursday, health officials said the number of COVID patients reporting to the hospital had peaked with more than 40% fewer people being treated for critical conditions on Jan. the peak on January 5.

While China’s reopening has been chaotic, investors are hoping it will help revive its $17 trillion economy, taking bets that have sent Chinese stocks and its currency, the yuan, to multi-month highs.

“Markets widely anticipate that a wave of pent-up demand will be unleashed as China’s economy reopens,” analysts at Nomura said in a note.

They warned that a drop in household wealth and a rise in youth unemployment, a hangover from years of lockdowns and travel restrictions, could dampen the recovery.

While international flights are scarce, Chinese tourists, a mainstay of the world’s retail and travel industry, are starting to travel again.

Malls from Macau to Bangkok aim to lure them in with red lantern displays and special dances to mark the Year of the Rabbit – and deep discounts.

Chinese travel spending grew to $255 billion in 2019, accounting for 33% of spending in the global luxury personal goods market, according to estimates by consultancy Bain.

Reporting by Liz Lee, Alessandro Diviggiano, Bernard Orr and the Beijing Newsroom Writing by John Geddie and Frances Kerry Editing by Robert Birsel and Chizu Nomiyama

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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