- Hospitals and funeral parlors are overwhelmed by the wave of COVID
- Some countries impose testing rules on Chinese travellers
- China records one new death from the Corona virus on December 28
SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s resource-starved countryside is racing to boost medical facilities before millions of factory workers return home for the Lunar New Year holiday next month from cities hit by COVID-19.
After imposing the world’s harshest coronavirus lockdown and relentless testing for three years, China reversed course this month toward living with the virus, leaving its fragile health system overwhelmed.
The lifting of the restrictions, after widespread protests against them, means that COVID is spreading largely unchecked and potentially infecting millions of people daily, according to some international health experts.
China officially reported one new coronavirus death on Wednesday, down from three on Tuesday, but foreign governments and many epidemiologists believe the numbers are much higher, and more than a million people could die next year.
China said it only counts deaths of COVID patients from pneumonia and respiratory failure as related to COVID.
In the southwestern city of Chengdu, funeral parlors were crowded late on Wednesday evening, with a steady stream of cars entering a van closely guarded by security personnel.
A truck driver who works in the parlor said that “huge numbers of people” were inside.
Hospitals and funeral homes in major cities have been stretched hard, but the main concern about the health system’s ability to cope is in the countryside.
At a pharmacy in Shanghai, Wang Caiyun, 53, a city cleaner from neighboring Anhui Province, said she was buying medicines for her family back home.
“My husband, my son, my grandson, my mother, they are all infected,” she said. “They can’t get any medicine, nothing for a fever or a cough.”
Every year hundreds of millions of people, most of whom work in factories near the south and east coasts, return to the countryside to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which begins on January 22nd.
The wave of holiday travel is expected to last 40 days, from January 7 to February 15, authorities said.
The state-run China Daily reported that rural areas are boosting their medical capabilities.
It said a hospital in a rural area of Inner Mongolia, home to more than 100,000 people, was looking for bidders for a 1.9 million yuan ($272,308) contract to upgrade wards to intensive care units.
Liancheng County Central Hospital in the eastern province of Fujian was seeking bids for ambulances and medical devices ranging from ventilators to electrocardiogram monitors.
In December, bids placed by hospitals for key medical equipment were two to three times higher than in previous months, according to a Reuters review, indicating that hospitals are scrambling to fill shortfalls.
The world’s second largest economy is expected to suffer a slowdown in factory production and consumption in the near term as workers and shoppers fall ill. The connection-intensive services sector has been particularly hard hit by anti-virus restrictions.
The reopening also raises the possibility of Chinese tourists returning to shopping streets around the world, once a $255 billion-a-year market globally. But some countries were surprised by the scale of the outbreak and questioned Beijing’s COVID statistics.
The official death toll in China has reached 5,246 since the pandemic began, compared to more than 1 million deaths in the United States. Hong Kong, under Chinese rule, has recorded more than 11,000 deaths.
The United States, India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan have said they will require COVID tests for travelers from China.
The United States issued a travel advisory on Wednesday advising Americans to “reconsider travel to China, Hong Kong and Macau” citing “reports of the healthcare system being overwhelmed” along with the risks of new variants.
The main airport in the Italian city of Milan began testing passengers arriving from Beijing and Shanghai on December 26, and found that nearly half of them were infected.
Top EU health officials have held talks to try to coordinate very different views on how to respond to China’s decision to lift its COVID-19 restrictions and the wave of infections.
China has rejected criticism of its statistics as baseless and politically motivated attempts to distort its policies. She also downplayed the risks of the new variants, saying she expected the mutations to be more virulent but less severe.
Chinese health officials said this week that Omicron remains the dominant strain in China.
Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Thailand and other countries have said they will not impose additional travel restrictions for now.
For its part, China, which has closed its borders to foreigners since early 2020, will stop requiring incoming travelers to enter quarantine from January 8.
($1 = 6.9774 yuan)
Additional reporting by Martin Quinn Pollard in Chengdu. Written by Marius Zaharia. Edited by Lincoln Feast, Robert Purcell
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