©Health & Fitness Journal. Patients lie on beds in a corridor at the emergency room of Zhongshan Hospital, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Shanghai, China January 3, 2023. REUTERS/Staff 2/5
By Yew Lun Tian, Farah Master and Emma Farge
BEIJING/HONG KONG/GENEVA (Health & Fitness Journal) – State media in China downplayed the severity of a surge in COVID-19 infections ahead of an expected briefing by its scientists to the World Health Organization on Tuesday, which is hoping for a “detailed discussion” on the evolution of the virus .
China’s abrupt reversal in COVID controls on December 7, as well as the accuracy of its case and mortality data, has come under increasing scrutiny at home and abroad.
China’s Foreign Ministry called the entry restrictions imposed by some countries “simply unreasonable” and said they “lacked any scientific basis”.
“We are ready to improve communication with the world,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told reporters in Beijing.
“But…we firmly oppose attempts to manipulate disease prevention and control measures for political ends and will take appropriate action on a reciprocal basis in various situations.”
The WHO has asked Chinese health authorities to regularly share specific and real-time information about the outbreak. The global body has invited Chinese scientists to present detailed virus sequencing data at a Technical Advisory Group meeting on Tuesday. It has also asked China to share data on hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations.
China’s departure from a “zero-COVID” policy championed by President Xi Jinping has followed protests that have represented the strongest public opposition during his decade in power and coincided with the economy’s slowest growth in nearly half a century.
As the virus continues to spread unchecked, funeral homes have reported a surge in demand for their services, and international health experts predict at least one million deaths in China this year.
China reported three new COVID deaths on Monday, raising its official death toll to 5,253 since the pandemic began.
On Tuesday, People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, quoted Chinese experts as saying the illness caused by the virus is relatively mild for most people.
“Serious and critical diseases account for 3 to 4 percent of infected patients currently admitted to certain hospitals in Beijing,” Tong Zhaohui, vice president of Beijing Chaoyang Hospital, told the newspaper.
Kang Yan, head of West China Tianfu Hospital of Sichuan University, said 46 patients had been admitted to intensive care units in the past three weeks, accounting for about 1% of symptomatic infections.
The emergency room at Zhongshan Hospital in Shanghai was overflowing with patients on Tuesday, a Health & Fitness Journal witness said.
Some lay in beds in the corridor receiving IV treatments while dozens queued around them, waiting to see a doctor. It was unclear how many were there with COVID.
Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, a WHO spokesman said a “detailed discussion” on circulating variants in China and around the world is expected, with Chinese scientists expected to give a presentation.
Two leading scientists and members of the committee, who met on Tuesday, said they were seeking a “more realistic picture” of the situation in China.
However, some experts doubted that Beijing would be very open.
“I don’t think China will be very forthright about information disclosure,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
“They’d rather keep it to themselves or say nothing happened, nothing new. In my opinion, we could assume that there is nothing new … but the problem is that China’s transparency problem is always there.”
The United States, France, Italy and others will require COVID tests for travelers from China, while Belgium said it will test aircraft wastewater for new variants.
European Union health officials will meet on Wednesday for a coordinated response.
China will no longer require travelers to quarantine from January 8th. However, it will still require a pre-departure test.
As Chinese workers and shoppers get sick, concerns about the near-term outlook for the world’s second largest economy are mounting, causing volatility in global financial markets.
The European Union has offered China free COVID-19 vaccines amid growing concerns over rising infections.
Beijing has yet to respond to the offer, an EU spokesman said, but the move comes after Germany shipped 11,500 BioNTech COVID vaccines to China last month for use by German nationals there.
China has so far insisted on only using Chinese-made vaccines, which are considered less effective than Western ones based on mRNA technology.
A survey released on Tuesday showed China’s factory activity has declined over the past month.
December shipments from Foxconn’s Zhengzhou iPhone plant, which has been disrupted by the departure of workers and unrest during a COVID outbreak, met 90% of the company’s original plans.
A “bushfire” of infections in China in the coming months is likely to hurt its economy this year and drag down global growth, International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva said.
“China is entering the most dangerous weeks of the pandemic,” warned analysts at Capital Economics.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism said the 52.71 million domestic trips during the Lunar New Year holiday generated 26.52 billion yuan (US$3.84 billion), up 4% year on year but only about 35% of the last year before the pandemic in 2019.
Expectations are higher for the big Lunar New Year holiday later this month, when some experts predict infections will have peaked in many places.