China reopens borders for quarantine-free travel


China has ended quarantine requirements for inbound travelers despite the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases.

According to the state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN), the first passengers to arrive under the new rules landed at airports in the southern cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen just after midnight on Sunday.

The 387 passengers on board flights from Singapore and Toronto in Canada were not subjected to COVID-19 testing upon arrival and did not undergo five-day quarantine in centralized government facilities, it reported.

The lifting of quarantine rules marks the final unraveling of China’s strict “zero-COVID” policy.

Beijing last month began dismantling its hard-line strategy of mandatory quarantines, grueling lockdowns and frequent testing following historic curbside protests. But the abrupt changes exposed many of its 1.4 billion population to the virus for the first time, sparking a wave of infections that is overwhelming some hospitals, emptying pharmacy shelves and creating long queues at crematoriums. .

In fact, the easing of travel restrictions opens the door for many Chinese to go abroad for the first time since the border slammed nearly three years ago, without fear of self-isolation in government facilities upon their return.

But the expected surge in visitors has led more than a dozen countries to impose mandatory COVID-19 testing on travelers from China, citing concerns over Beijing’s “under-representation” of infections and deaths from the disease, as well as the potential for the emergence of novel and more virulent sub-variants of the coronavirus.

Beijing has called the travel restrictions “unacceptable”.

Despite the testing requirements, 28-year-old Zhang Kai told AFP news agency he is planning a trip to South Korea or Japan.

“I am happy, now finally [I can] let go,” Zhang said.

Friends of his have already landed in Japan and underwent tests, he said, dismissing the requirement as a “minor matter”.

In Tokyo, caricaturist Masashi Higashitani said he was excited about China reopening and was dusting off his Chinese language skills to prepare for more vacationers. But he admitted to having some fears.

“I wonder if an influx of too many of them could overwhelm our capacity. I am also concerned that we need to be more careful with anti-virus measures,” he told AFP.

Experts say that while concerns about travelers from China were understandable, the likelihood of them causing a spike in infections was minimal.

“The antibody levels in most Chinese people are very low,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank. That is “partly due to three years of the ‘zero-COVID’ approach that did not tolerate any infection, meaning most people in the country were not exposed to the virus, and also due to the lack of efficacy of China’s vaccines. ”.

“So people have reason to be concerned about the large number of travelers from China. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to consider these passengers as sick or dangerous,” he told Al Jazeera. “So far there is no evidence of the emergence of new sub-variants from China. And since most of these destination countries have learned to deal with the virus, the influx of Chinese visitors to those countries will not lead to a spike in cases.”

China’s ‘Great Migration’

Lifting the curbs on travel abroad comes as China also marks Chunyun, the 40-day travel period leading up to the Lunar New Year, with millions of people expected to travel from cities hard hit by COVID-19 to the countryside to visit their relatives, including vulnerable elderly family members.

This Lunar New Year holiday, which officially runs from January 21, is the first since 2020 without domestic travel restrictions.

The Department of Transport said on Friday it expects more than 2 billion passengers to travel in the next 40 days, up 99.5 percent year-on-year and reaching 70.3 percent of journeys in 2019.

There was a mixed reaction to that news online, with some comments praising the freedom to return to hometowns and celebrate the Lunar New Year with family for the first time in years.

However, many others said they would not be traveling this year, with the concern of infecting elderly relatives a common theme.

“I dare not go back to my hometown for fear of bringing the poison back,” one person wrote on Twitter-like Weibo.

There is widespread concern that the large migration of workers from cities to their hometowns will trigger a wave of infections in smaller towns and rural areas that are less well equipped with intensive care unit (ICU) beds and ventilators to treat them.

Authorities say they are boosting grassroots medical services, opening more fever clinics nationwide and establishing a “green channel” for high-risk patients, especially the elderly with underlying health conditions, who are transferred directly from villages to higher-level hospitals.

“China’s rural areas are vast, its population is large and per capita medical resources are relatively inadequate,” Mi Feng, spokesman for the National Health Commission, said on Saturday.

“It is necessary to provide convenient services, accelerate vaccination for the elderly in rural areas, and build grassroots defense lines.”

Some analysts are now saying that the current wave of infections may have already passed its peak.

Ernan Cui, an analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing, cited several online surveys that indicated that rural areas were already more exposed to COVID-19 infections than initially thought, with an infection peak already reached in most regions, noting note that there is “not much difference between urban and rural areas”.

Sunday also saw an easing of cross-border travel restrictions between mainland China and the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong.

Up to 50,000 Hong Kong residents can cross the border daily at three land checkpoints after registering online, and another 10,000 are allowed to enter by sea, air or bridge without having to register in advance.

More than 410,000 in total had signed up on Saturday to make the trip, public broadcaster RTHK reports.

Jillian Xin, who has three children and lives in Hong Kong, said she was “incredibly excited” about the opening of the border, especially as it means she can more easily see family in Beijing.

“For us, the opening of the border means that my children can finally meet their grandparents for the first time since the start of the pandemic,” she told Reuters news agency. “Two of our kids never got to see their grandpa, so we can’t wait for them to meet.”

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