The Covid-19 wave sweeping across China could last up to three months as the virus moves out of the cities and into the country’s vast countryside, a top Chinese epidemiologist has warned, hampering its nascent economic recovery.
Infections are expected to surge in rural areas, where medical resources are relatively scarce, as hundreds of millions travel to their home towns for the Lunar New Year holidays, which officially start from January 21.
China last month abruptly abandoned the strict anti-virus regime of mass lockdowns that had fuelled historic protests across the country in late November, and finally reopened its borders last week.
The abrupt dismantling of restrictions has unleashed the virus onto China’s 1.4 billion people, more than a third of whom live in regions where infections are already past their peak, according to state media.
But the worst of the outbreak was not yet over, warned Zeng Guang, the former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a report published in local media outlet Caixin on Thursday.
“Our priority focus has been on the large cities. It is time to focus on rural areas,” Zeng was quoted as saying.
He said a large number of people in the countryside, where medical facilities are relatively poor, are being left behind, including the elderly, the sick and the disabled.
While China’s reopening has given a boost to financial assets globally, policymakers around the world worry it may revive inflationary pressures.
And December’s trade data released on Friday provided more reasons to be cautious about China’s recovery pace.
Data next week is expected to show China’s economy grew 2.8% in 2022, its 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 by worsening its already bleak demographic outlook.
Growth is then seen rebounding to 4.9% this year, still well below the pre-pandemic trend.
China Covid Data Under Fire
The World Health Organization this week also warned of the risks stemming from holiday travelling.
The UN agency said China was heavily under-reporting deaths from Covid, although it is now providing more information on its outbreak.
“Since the outbreak of the epidemic, China has shared relevant information and data with the international community in an open, transparent and responsible manner,” foreign ministry official Wu Xi told reporters.
Health authorities have been reporting five or fewer deaths a day over the past month, numbers which are inconsistent with the long queues seen at funeral homes and the body bags seen coming out of crowded hospitals.
Although international health experts have predicted at least 1 million Covid-related deaths this year, China has reported just over 5,000 since the pandemic began, one of the lowest death rates in the world.
Concerns over data transparency were among the factors that prompted more than a dozen countries to demand pre-departure Covid tests from travellers arriving from China.
Beijing, which had shut its borders from the rest of the world for three years and still demands all visitors get tested before their trip, objects to the curbs.
Wu said accusations by individual countries were “unreasonable, unscientific and unfounded.”
- Reuters with additional editing by Sean O’Meara