China has set out urgent plans to protect rural communities from COVID-19 as millions of city-dwellers plan holidays for the first time in years after the government abandoned its stringent system of lockdowns and travel curbs.
China’s move last week to start aligning with a world that has largely opened up to live with the virus, followed historic protests against President Xi Jinping’s signature “zero-COVID” policies designed to stamp out COVID.
But the excitement that met this dramatic U-turn has quickly given way to concerns that China is unprepared for the coming wave of infections, and the blow it could deliver to the world’s second-largest economy.
China reported 2157 new symptomatic COVID-19 infections for December 15.
The official figures, however, do not capture the whole picture as testing has dropped, and are at odds with signs of wider spread in cities where long queues outside fever clinics and empty pharmacy shelves have become a common sight.
There is particular concern about China’s hinterland in the run up to local Lunar New Year holidays starting on January 22.
Rural areas are likely to be inundated with travellers returning to their hometowns and villages, which have had little exposure to the virus during the three years since the pandemic erupted.
China’s National Health Commission on Friday said it was ramping up vaccinations and building stocks of ventilators, essential drugs, and test kits in rural areas. It also advised travellers to reduce contact with elderly relatives.
Mainland China’s international borders remain largely shut, but recent decisions to abandon testing prior to domestic travel and disable apps that tracked people’s journey history have freed up people to move around the country.
One of China’s most populous provinces Henan cancelled all holidays for healthcare staff until the end of March to ensure “a smooth transition” as COVID-19 restrictions ease, state media reported late on Thursday.
Multiple cities across the country of 1.4 billion people also opened new vaccination sites to encourage the public to take booster shots, the state-run Global Times newspaper reported.
“Go all out” was the message from China’s state asset regulator in a statement late on Thursday that urged government-owned drug makers to ensure supplies of COVID-related medicines to meet “the rapid increase” in demand.
SF Express, one of China’s largest courier services, said on its official WeChat account that it sent in workers from across the country to keep deliveries going in Beijing amid staff shortages and soaring demand.
It also said it had started a “fast track” for emergency shipments such as medicines and daily necessities, with demand in the capital 300 per cent above normal levels.
The COVID-19 scare in China also led people in Hong Kong, Macau and in some neighbourhoods in Australia to go in search for fever medicines and test kits for family and friends on the mainland.
JPMorgan on Friday revised down its expectations for China’s 2022 growth to 2.8 per cent, which is well below China’s official target of 5.5 per cent and would mark one of its worst performances in almost half a century.