By Bernard Orr
BEIJING (Reuters) – Millions of urban workers were moving across China on Wednesday ahead of the expected Friday peak of its Lunar New Year mass migration, as China’s leaders look to get its COVID-battered economy moving.
As officials ended three years of the world’s strictest COVID-19 restrictions last month, workers flocked to train stations and airports to head to small towns and rural homes, sparking fears of a widening virus outbreak.
Economists and analysts are looking to the holiday season, known as the Spring Festival, for a glimmer of a rebound in consumption across the world’s second-largest economy after new gross domestic product data on Tuesday confirmed a sharp economic slowdown in China.
Any prolonged slowdown could worsen the policy challenges facing President Xi Jinping, who must appease the pessimistic youth who took to the streets in historic protests in November against the “zero-Covid” policy he championed at the time.
While some analysts expect the recovery to slow, China’s Vice Premier Liu He told the World Economic Forum in Switzerland on Tuesday that China was opening up to the world after three years of pandemic isolation.
National Immigration Administration officials said an average of half a million people a day had moved into or out of China since its borders opened on Jan. 8, state media reported.
But as workers pour in from megacities like Shanghai, where officials say the virus is at its peak, many are heading to towns and villages where unvaccinated adults have not yet been exposed to COVID and health care systems are underserved.
For some, joy benefits
As the Covid wave intensified, some were putting the virus out of their minds as they headed for the exit doors.
Tourists hurried through train stations and subways in Beijing and Shanghai, many carrying large wheeled suitcases and boxes filled with food and gifts.
“I was a little worried (about the COVID-19 epidemic),” said Jiang Shiguang, a migrant worker who stood among the crowds at Shanghai’s Hongqiao train station.
“It doesn’t matter now. It doesn’t matter if you get infected now. You will only be sick for two days,” Jiang, 30, told Reuters.
Others will return to mourning dead relatives. For some of them, that loss is mixed with anger at what they say was a lack of preparation to protect vulnerable adults before officials lifted COVID restrictions in early December.
The infection rate in the southern city of Guangzhou, the capital of China’s most populous province, has now exceeded 85%, local health officials announced on Wednesday.
In isolated areas far from fast-paced urban outbreaks, government medical workers have been going door-to-door in outlying villages to vaccinate the elderly this week, with the official Xinhua news agency describing Tuesday’s effort as the “last mile.”
Clinics in rural villages and towns are now equipped with oxygen machines and medical vehicles have been deployed to areas deemed at risk.
While authorities confirmed a huge increase in deaths on Saturday – announcing that nearly 60,000 people with COVID had died in hospitals between December 8 and January 12 – state media reported that Heath officials were not yet ready to hand over to the World Health Organization (WHO). It is now looking for additional data.
In particular, the UN agency needs information on so-called excess deaths – all deaths that go beyond the norm during a crisis, the WHO said in a statement to Reuters on Tuesday.
Global Times, a nationalist tabloid published by the official People’s Daily, quoted Chinese experts as saying the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention is already tracking such data, but it will take time before it is released.
Doctors at public and private hospitals have been actively discouraged from attributing deaths to COVID, Reuters reported on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Bernard Orr in Beijing and in the Beijing and Shanghai newsrooms; Additional reporting by Shihao Jiang in Shanghai; Writing by Greg Torode; Editing by Michael Perry)