As COVID-hit China reopens to the world, countries put up travel barriers

  • China will lift the quarantine for overseas visitors from January 8
  • Final removal of strict antivirus rules
  • Greece joins nations imposing travel restrictions on China
  • Busy travel, holidays can ignite a viral outbreak

SHANGHAI/SINGAPORE, Jan 6 (Reuters) – With China days away from lifting border controls that have effectively cut it off from the rest of the world for three years, countries are lining up to impose restrictions on travelers from China , to contain the raging COVID -19 outbreak.

From Sunday, January 8, China will remove the requirement for arriving travelers to be quarantined, the latest rollback of its “zero COVID” regime, which began last month after historic protests against a suffocating series of mass lockdowns.

But the drastic changes have exposed many of China’s 1.4 billion people to the virus for the first time, sparking a wave of infections that has swamped some hospitals, emptied pharmacy shelves of drugs and sparked international alarm.

Greece, Germany and Sweden on Thursday joined more than a dozen countries to require Chinese travelers to be tested for COVID, as the World Health Organization said official data on the virus in China underestimated the true extent of its outbreak.

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Chinese officials and state media have adopted a defiant tone, defending its handling of the outbreak, downplaying the severity of the wave and condemning overseas travel requirements for its residents.

“No matter how China decides to handle the COVID-19 outbreak, some Western media and some Western politicians will never be satisfied,” the state-run Global Times wrote in an editorial late Thursday.

The airline industry, battered by years of pandemic restrictions, has also been critical of decisions to impose tests on travelers from China. China will still require pre-departure testing for passengers arriving after January 8.

Some Chinese citizens believe the reopening is too hasty.

“They should have taken a series of actions before they opened, such as advising what precautions people of a certain age should take… and at the very least ensuring that pharmacies are well stocked,” a 70-year-old man who gave his surname, Zhao told Reuters in Shanghai.

“By not doing that, it got very messy.”

China reported five new mainland COVID deaths on Thursday, bringing the official death toll from the virus to 5,264, one of the lowest in the world.

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But that contrasts with the situation in a place where funeral homes and crematoria are overflowing and some hospitals are full of elderly patients on respirators.

International health experts believe Beijing’s narrow definition of COVID deaths does not reflect the true number, which could rise to more than a million deaths this year.

SOUTH EAST ASIA OPEN

With major Lunar New Year holidays later this month, the mainland will also open its border with its Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on Sunday for the first time in three years.

Ferry services between the city and the gambling hub of Macau will resume on the same day.

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways ( 0293.HK ) said on Thursday it would double flights to mainland China. Flights to and from China remain at a fraction of pre-Covid levels.

The WHO has warned that the holiday, which begins on January 21 and usually leads to the biggest human migration on the planet, as people return from cities to see family in the countryside, could generate a new wave of infections without a higher rate of vaccination and other precautions.

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Authorities expect 2.1 billion passenger journeys by road, rail, water and air over the holiday, double last year’s 1.05 billion during the same period.

The Ministry of Transport urged people to be careful to minimize the risk of infecting elderly relatives, pregnant women and babies.

One region that could be a major beneficiary of China’s opening is Southeast Asia, which has backed away from requiring COVID tests from Chinese visitors.

With the exception of testing airline sewage from Malaysia and Thailand for the virus, the 11 nations in the region will treat Chinese passengers like everyone else.

As many as 76 percent of Chinese travel agencies ranked Southeast Asia as the top destination for the resumption of overseas travel, according to a survey released in December by the ITB China trade show.

Reporting by Brenda Goh in Shanghai, Bernard Orr and Liz Lee in Beijing, Farah Master in Hong Kong and Xinghui Kok in Singapore; Written by John Geddy; Editing by Robert Birsell

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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