COVID casts shadow over Lunar New Year celebrations in China

Medical experts predict China could see tens of thousands of deaths a day over the Lunar New Year holiday. Since the dismantling of the government’s zero-COVID policy, many have been anxious about the wave of infections that have swept through. As special correspondent Richard Kimber reports, most are brushing risks and fears aside to celebrate the most important festival on the Chinese calendar.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Since the abrupt dismantling of the Chinese government's zero COVID policy, many people have been anxious about China opening up to the rest of the world and the wave of infections that have swept through the country.

    But, as special correspondent Richard Kimber reports, most are brushing risks and fears aside to celebrate the most important festival on the Chinese calendar, the lunar new year.

  • Richard Kimber:

    It's just days to go before the start of the Spring Festival. In Beijing, the holiday rush has already begun.

    This is the first time mass travel without COVID restrictions has been allowed in nearly three years. For many of the capital's migrant workers who come to make a better living for their families, it's an emotional return home to be with their loved ones.

    Qin Ziguang from Changchun in Northeastern China hasn't been back in five years.

  • Qin Ziguang, Migrant Worker (through translator):

    Finally, I'm going back home. Before, I was quite busy in Beijing, and, in the past few years, I couldn't go back because of the epidemic.

  • Richard Kimber:

    China's Ministry of Transport says it expects travel to double compared to a year ago to more than two billion trips over the holiday period. It would mark a recovery to 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

    Scenes at the railway station are in stark contrast with how it looked before China abandoned its strict zero COVID approach, following widespread anger over pandemic curbs. Gone are the security personnel dressed in hazmat suits that patrolled transport hubs. And Q.R. health code checkpoints where people have to verify their health status before entering are nowhere to be seen either.

  • Qin Ziguang (through translator):

    Of course, it's now more convenient. It's easy coming in and out. I can go wherever I want.

  • Richard Kimber:

    But now the virus has been let loose, some aren't taking chances.

    One man we spoke to called Hua said, even though he's returning home, he won't be visiting friends or relatives.

  • Hua, Property Manager (through translator):

    The epidemic hasn't ended. I wear this to protect myself, as well as others.

  • Richard Kimber:

    London-based health analytics firm Airfinity forecasts that China could see as many as 36,000 deaths a day over the Spring Festival holidays.

    Over the past two months, COVID-19 has ripped through the country, crowding out hospitals and filling crematoriums like this one. Officially, about 60,000 people have died of COVID-19 since early December. That's according to China's National Health Commission. Medical experts say the true figure could be 10 times that. But it's hard to say exactly where the death toll stands.

    The World Health Organization has accused China of underestimating the severity of its outbreak. Earlier this month, it also said a lack of data from the country was making it difficult to help manage the risks.

    Mike Ryan is executive director of the WHO.

  • Dr. Mike Ryan, Executive Director, World Health Organization:

    We do want and are working ever closer with our colleagues in China to try and understand better the transmission dynamics. But we still do not have adequate information to make a full comprehensive risk assessment. And, therefore, we will continue to try to encourage access to that data.

  • Richard Kimber:

    Medical experts have also warned that the rapid spread of the virus now might make the emergence of mutations more likely.

    Several countries, including the U.S., have imposed travel restrictions on arrivals from China. But, at the same time, many other places are welcoming the return of Chinese tourists, among them, Hong Kong. It's a special administrative region of China. Even it had been largely cut off from the mainland until borders fully reopened this month.

    The high-speed rail line behind me that connects the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong has been closed throughout the pandemic. Now its reopening is expected to see a surge in the number of Chinese tourists coming across the border. And just to give you an idea of how important that is for the Hong Kong economy, before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than two-thirds of the 56 million arrivals into Hong Kong from overseas came from across the border.

    Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the city has fallen into a deep recession. Many people are praying a rebound in retail and tourism will help lift the economy. But economists remain pessimistic and say a meaningful recovery could take much longer.

    Its fate is tied closely to the mainland's uncertain outlook. China's surveyed unemployment rate for December likely stood above the government's targeted ceiling of 5.5 percent.

    Dan Wang is chief economist with Hang Seng Bank.

  • Dan Wang, Chief Economist, Hang Seng Bank:

    With this kind of high unemployment rate, people's expectation for future growth prospect is quite low. And, with that, that means, even if we see some of the rebound for the tourist sites and big cities, the general recovery will not really be there. We really have to wait until 2024 before we see the general recovery.

  • Richard Kimber:

    But, as the country marks its first Spring Festival free from COVID restrictions, many people are simply celebrating the moment and hoping to put the past few tough years behind them.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Richard Kimber in Hong Kong.

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