Hospitals across China have been overwhelmed by an explosion of COVID cases following Beijing’s decision to lift strict rules that had largely kept the virus at bay but tanked its economy and sparked widespread protests.
On Monday (Dec 26), the country said it would bring an end to mandatory quarantine on arrival - prompting many jubilant Chinese citizens to make plans to travel abroad.
In response, the United States and a number of other countries announced they would require negative COVID tests for all travellers from mainland China.
“The recent rapid increase in COVID-19 transmission in China increases the potential for new variants emerging,” a senior US health official told reporters in a phone briefing.
Beijing has provided only limited data about circulating variants in China to global databases, the official said, and its testing and reporting on new cases has also diminished.
The US move came after Italy, Japan, India and Malaysia announced their own measures in a bid to protect against importing new COVID variants from China.
Beijing has hit out against “hyping, smearing and political manipulation” by the Western media concerning its COVID response.
“Currently China’s epidemic situation is all predictable and under control,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a briefing yesterday.
China still does not allow foreign visitors, however, with the issuance of visas for overseas tourists and students still suspended.
But the lifting of mandatory quarantines sparked a surge in interest in overseas travel by Chinese citizens, who have been largely confined to their country since Beijing pulled down the drawbridge in March 2020.
Italy said yesterday it would make coronavirus tests for all visitors from China mandatory.
The measure was “essential to ensure the surveillance and identification of any variants of the virus in order to protect the Italian population”, health minister Orazio Schillaci said.
France’s president, too, said it had “requested appropriate measures to protect” its citizens, with Paris noting it was closely monitoring “the evolution of the situation in China”.
The European Commission is set to meet today to discuss “possible measures for a coordinated approach” by EU states to the explosion of COVID cases in China.
Bodies piling up
On the frontlines of China’s COVID wave, hospitals are battling surging cases that have hit the elderly and vulnerable hardest.
In Tianjin, around 140 kilometres (90 miles) southeast of the capital Beijing, AFP visited two hospital wards overwhelmed by patients sick with the virus.
Doctors are being asked to work even if they are infected, one said.
AFP saw more than two dozen mostly elderly patients lying on gurneys in public areas of the emergency department, and at least one dead person being wheeled out of a ward.
“It’s a four-hour wait to see a doctor,” staff could be heard telling an elderly man who said he had COVID.
“There are 300 people in front of you.”
China’s National Health Commission (NHC) last week said that it would no longer release an official daily COVID death toll.
But with the end of mass testing - and China’s decision to reclassify COVID deaths in a move analysts said would dramatically downplay the fatalities - those numbers were no longer believed to reflect reality.
With the virus now able to circulate among nearly one-fifth of the world’s population - almost all of whom lack immunity from previous infection and many of whom remain unvaccinated - other nations and experts fear China will become fertile ground for new variants.
Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, told AFP that each new infection increased the chance the virus would mutate.
“The fact that 1.4 billion people are suddenly exposed to SARS-CoV-2 obviously creates conditions prone to emerging variants,” Flahault said, referring to the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.
Bruno Lina, a virology professor at France’s Lyon University, told the La Croix newspaper this week that China could become a “potential breeding ground for the virus”.
Soumya Swaminathan, who served as the World Health Organization’s chief scientist until November, said a large part of the Chinese population was vulnerable to infection in part because many elderly people had not been vaccinated or boosted.
“We need to keep a close watch on any emerging concerning variants,” she told the website of the Indian Express newspaper.