BEIJING – Chinese state-media have railed against the growing number of foreign governments imposing Covid-19 tests on travellers from China, calling the measures “discriminatory.”
Having kept its borders all but shut for three years, imposing a strict regime of lockdowns and relentless testing, China abruptly reversed course toward living with the virus on Dec 7, and a wave of infections erupted across the country.
Malaysia, South Korea, Spain and Israel on Friday joined a growing list of countries, including the United States, India and Italy, which have imposed Covid-19 tests for travellers from China over concerns about the scale of its Covid-19 outbreak and scepticism over Beijing’s health statistics.
Malaysia said it would screen all international arrivals for fever.
“The real intention is to sabotage China’s three years of Covid-19 control efforts and attack the country’s system,” state-run tabloid Global Times said in an article late on Thursday, calling the restrictions “unfounded” and “discriminatory”.
China will stop requiring inbound travellers to go into quarantine from Jan 8. But it will still demand a negative PCR test result within 48 hours before departure.
Senior Chinese health officials exchanged views with the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Friday on Covid-19 via a video conference, China’s National Health Commission said in a statement.
Both sides exchanged views on the current epidemic situation, medical treatment, vaccination and other technical matters, the Chinese health authority said, adding that more technical exchanges would be held.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said earlier in the day that the organisation needed more information to assess the latest surge in infections in China, without taking a position on the issue of travel tests.
Not all countries are imposing tests. European Union (EU) members, in particular, are divided.
Over the past days, officials in France, Germany and Portugal have said they saw no need for now for new restrictions, while Austria has stressed the economic benefits of Chinese tourists’ return to Europe.
Global spending by Chinese visitors was worth more than US$250 billion (S$335 billion) a year before the pandemic.
Acting a day after EU health officials failed to agree on a joint course of action, Spain on Friday followed Italy’s lead to become the second of the bloc’s 27 members to require tests for travellers from China.
EU health experts are expected to hold a crisis response meeting next week, according to an EU source.
In the meantime, EU health chief Stella Kyriakides wrote to the bloc’s health ministers to suggest they immediately scale up genomic sequencing of Covid-19 infections and monitoring of waste water, including from airports, to detect any new variants given the virus surge in China.
The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention is also considering sampling wastewater from international aircraft to track any emerging new variants, the agency told Reuters.
The US has raised concerns about potential mutations of the virus as it sweeps through the world’s most populous country, as well as over China’s data transparency.
Meanwhile, a Covid-19 vaccination campaign for German nationals in China started its pilot phase, the German ambassador in Beijing, Ms Patricia Flor, said on Twitter.
A shipment of 11,500 doses of the BioNTech vaccine arrived last week, enough to give one shot each to half of the 20,000 or so German nationals residing in China.
Xi says nation’s Covid-19 strategy was ‘optimised’
Chinese President Xi Jinping said the country’s Covid-19 strategy was “optimised” to protect people’s lives and minimise economic costs, his first comments on the issue since his government abruptly started dismantling the harsh policy earlier this month.
“We have optimised Covid control strategy based on time and situation in order to best protect people’s lives and health, and minimize the impact on economic and social development,” Mr Xi said while listing his achievements this year at an event with the nation’s top political advisory body, the official Xinhua News Agency reported on Friday.
The Xinhua report quoted Mr Xi as using the phrase “Covid control strategy”, instead of the one for “Covid Zero.”
China, a country of 1.4 billion people, reported one new Covid-19 death for Thursday, same as the day before - numbers which do not match the experience of other countries after they re-opened.
China’s official death toll of 5,247 since the pandemic began compares with more than 1 million deaths in the US. Hong Kong, a city of 7.4 million, has reported more than 11,000 deaths.
Britain-based health data firm Airfinity said on Thursday around 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from Covid-19. Cumulative deaths in China since Dec 1 have likely reached 100,000, with infections totalling 18.6 million, it said.
Airfinity expects China’s Covid-19 infections to reach their first peak on Jan 13, with 3.7 million cases a day.
China’s chief epidemiologist Wu Zunyou said on Thursday that a team at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention plans to assess fatalities differently.
The team will measure the difference between the number of deaths in the current wave of infections and the number of deaths expected had the epidemic never happened. By calculating the “excess mortality”, China will be able to work out what could have been potentially underestimated, Dr Wu said.
China has said it only counts deaths of Covid-19 patients caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure as Covid-related.
The relatively low death count is also inconsistent with the surging demand reported by funeral parlours in several Chinese cities.
The lifting of restrictions, after widespread protests against them in November, has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes across the country, with scenes of people on intravenous drips by the roadside and lines of hearses outside crematoria fuelling public concern.
Health experts say China has been caught ill-prepared by the abrupt U-turn in policies. In December, tenders put out by hospitals for key medical equipment such as ventilators and patient monitors were two to three times higher than in previous months, according to a Reuters review, suggesting hospitals across the country were scrambling to plug shortages.
The world’s second-largest economy is expected to slow down further in the near term as factory workers and shoppers fall ill. Some economists predict a strong bounce back from a low base next year, but concerns linger that some of the damage made by three years of restrictions could be long-term.
Consumers may need time to recover their confidence and spending appetite after losing income during lockdowns, while the private sector may have used its expansion funds to cover losses incurred due to the restrictions.
Heavily indebted China will also face slowing demand in its main export markets, while its massive property sector is licking its wounds after a series of defaults.
China’s factory activity most likely cooled in December as rising infections began to affect production lines, a Reuters poll showed on Friday. REUTERS, BLOOMBERG