Corona: New Year celebrations in China: travel waves spread the virus faster

"I haven't been home for three years," says Mr.

Corona: New Year celebrations in China: travel waves spread the virus faster

"I haven't been home for three years," says Mr. Wang, who is visiting his parents in his home country for the first time for the Chinese New Year celebrations. The two are over 70 years old, live in Jingzhou, two and a half hours away from the central Chinese metropolis of Wuhan, where the world's first infections with the corona virus were discovered at the end of 2019.

He is not afraid that he could bring the virus with him on his trip and infect parents or relatives. "They've all been sick now," says Wang, who runs a general store in the capital with his wife. "It's really dangerous for older people, but they got through it just fine."

Like Wang, hundreds of millions of Chinese are traveling back to their hometowns for the Chinese New Year for the first time. It is traditionally the largest annual migration of peoples. Because of the lockdowns and other restrictions imposed by the zero-Covid strategy, this family highlight of the year has had to be canceled for many Chinese since 2020.

Year of the Rabbit is welcomed

This year, according to the traditional lunar calendar, the year of the rabbit will be welcomed on Sunday night (CET: Saturday 5:00 p.m.). Chinese fortune tellers anticipate a year of harmony and conflict resolution. All hopes are pinned on the pandemic being somehow overcome.

After abruptly reversing from zero tolerance to full relaxation in early December, all restrictions have now been lifted, allowing the Chinese to travel freely again. There is a lot of catching up to do: Two billion individual passenger trips are predicted over the 40-day peak travel season - that's around 70 percent of the travel volume compared to the time before the pandemic.

From the previously affected metropolises such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the virus is carried to small and medium-sized cities and rural areas in the inland regions. The wave of travel is one of the reasons why the virus is spreading much faster than originally expected in the world's most populous country.

Ongoing eruption a "single big wave"

"The speed of reaching the peak and returning to normal has been comparatively rapid - in a way that exceeds our expectations," said Vice Premier Liu He. While experts had initially expected a second peak after the New Year's festival because of the travel wave, the ongoing outbreak is now forming into a single large wave, as reported by the London-based research institute Airfinity.

“We are now anticipating a larger, longer-lasting wave, with infections peaking higher,” said Airfinity's Matt Linley. After the cities, regions with less medical care are now affected, where a particularly large number of old people live. In the backward, rural regions, they usually take care of the grandchildren, while the parents earn the money as migrant workers in the cities and send them home.

In China, the elderly in particular are not sufficiently vaccinated. 25 million are said to be completely unprotected. According to the state media, a quarter of those over 60 are not boosted. The vaccinations were often far too long ago to have any real effect. China does not allow modern foreign vaccines for political reasons.

Some domestic provinces like Hubei and Hunan could now see demand for intensive care beds six times their capacity, Airfinity director Linley warned. "Our predictions anticipate a significant strain on China's healthcare system over the next two weeks." He thinks it's likely "many treatable patients will die because of overcrowded hospitals and lack of care."

Dramatic situation

The situation is dramatic, but the government is downplaying the scale and severity of the contagion. After almost three years of urgent warnings about the dangers of Covid-19, people now prefer to speak only of a "corona cold".

According to Airfinity's model calculations, the wave of infections could peak this week or the next, with 4.8 million new infections per day. The number of deaths is therefore likely to rise to the highest level of 36,000 a day during the New Year holidays next week - significantly more than the 25,000 previously predicted.

Airfinity Wahrsager Raymond Lo SCMP

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