China’s vast countryside is rushing to bolster its Covid defenses
  • Hospitals, funeral parlors are overwhelmed by the wave of Covid
  • Some countries impose screening rules on Chinese travelers
  • China reported a new Covid death on December 28

SHANGHAI/BEIJING, Dec 29 (Reuters) – China’s vast and resource-thin countryside is racing to improve medical facilities before hundreds of millions of factory workers return to their families for the Lunar New Year holiday next month from cities where Covid-19 is on the rise. .

China, which has imposed three years of the world’s strictest Covid regime of lockdowns and non-stop testing, turned to living with the virus this month, overwhelming its fragile health system.

According to some international health experts, the lifting of restrictions, following widespread protests against them, would allow Covid to spread largely unchecked and infect millions of people a day.

China officially reported one new COVID death on Wednesday, down from three on Tuesday, but foreign governments and many epidemiologists believe the number is much higher, and more than 1 million people could die next year.

China has said it only counts deaths of Covid-19 patients due to pneumonia and respiratory failure as Covid-related.

In the southwestern city of Chengdu, funeral parlors were busy after dark on Wednesday, with a steady stream of cars entering one, which was heavily guarded by security personnel.

A van driver who works at the parlor said the past few weeks had been particularly busy, with “most people” inside.

Hospitals and funeral homes in major cities are under severe pressure, but the main concern about the health system’s ability to cope with rising infections is focused on rural areas.

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At a Shanghai pharmacy, Wang Kaiyun, 53, a city cleaner from neighboring Anhui province, said he was buying medicine for his family back home.

“My husband, my son, my grandson, my mother, they are all affected,” she said. “They don’t get any medicine for fever and cough.”

Every year, hundreds of millions of people, mostly working in factories near the southern and eastern coasts, return to the countryside for the Lunar New Year, which begins on January 22.

Officials said that the holiday travel rush will continue for 40 days from Jan. 7 to Feb. 15.

Rural areas across China are improving their medical treatment capacity, the state-run China Daily reported Thursday.

A hospital in rural Inner Mongolia, home to more than 100,000 people, is seeking bidders for a 1.9 million yuan ($272,308) contract to upgrade its wards to intensive care units.

Liancheng County Central Hospital in eastern Fujian province has solicited tenders for ambulances and medical equipment, from ventilators to electrocardiogram monitors.

In December, tenders issued by hospitals for key medical equipment were two to three times higher than in previous months, according to a Reuters review, as hospitals across the country scramble to plug shortages.

Test requirements

The world’s second-largest economy is expected to face a slowdown in factory production and domestic consumption as workers and shoppers fall ill.

The communication-intensive services sector, which accounts for nearly half of China’s economic output, has been hit by the country’s anti-virus restrictions, which have closed many restaurants and restricted travel. As China reopens, many businesses in the service sector don’t have the money to expand.

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The reopening also raises the prospect of Chinese tourists returning to shopping streets around the world, a $255 billion-a-year global market. But some countries are shocked by the scale of the outbreak and skeptical of Beijing’s Covid statistics.

China’s official death toll since the outbreak began is 5,246, compared with more than 1 million deaths in the United States. More than 11,000 people died in Hong Kong under Chinese rule.

The US, India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan have said they will require Covid tests for travelers from China. The Telegraph reports that Britain is considering a similar move.

The US issued a travel warning on Wednesday, advising Americans to “reconsider travel to China, Hong Kong and Macau”, citing reports that the “health system is overwhelmed” with the risk of new variants.

The main airport in the Italian city of Milan began testing passengers from Beijing and Shanghai on December 26, only to find that half of them were infected.

China has dismissed criticism that its figures are baseless and politically motivated attempts to smear its policies. It also reduces the risk of new variants and expects mutations to be more virulent but less severe.

Omicron is still dominant in China, Chinese health officials said this week.

Australia, Germany, Thailand and other countries have said they will not impose additional restrictions on travel for now.

For its part, China, whose borders have been closed to foreigners since early 2020, will stop incoming travelers from going into quarantine starting January 8.

($1 = 6.9774 Yuan)

Additional reporting by Martin Quinn Pollard in Chengdu; By Marius Zaharia; Editing Lincoln Feast, Robert Birzel

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