On Tuesday, urban workers crammed train stations across China’s largest cities as the country’s mass migration for Lunar New Year holidays kicked into high gear, an early sign of economic recovery as officials confirmed a historic drop due to COVID-19 curbs.
After three years of COVID restrictions and lockdowns, the world’s second-largest economy slowed sharply in the fourth quarter, data showed on Tuesday, dragging 2022 growth down to one of its worst performances in nearly half a century.
With mass travel for the Lunar New Year possible for the first time in nearly three years thanks to the relaxation of some of the world’s strictest COVID restrictions, the economy stands to benefit from hundreds of thousands of people spending more each day as they return to China’s hinterland.
While many analysts believe that the impact of COVID will fade gradually, some see the Lunar New Year as a welcome early consumption boost.
“Peak infections passed in major cities in January, and with the Spring Festival coming, tourism is back, and the signs of a recovery in consumption are obvious,” said Nie Wen, a Shanghai based economist at the investment firm Hwabao Trust.
Even as workers leave, health experts fear that the COVID outbreak will spread and worsen, putting the elderly in rural villages at risk.
Despite Chinese authorities confirming a significant increase in deaths on Saturday, announcing that nearly 60,000 people with COVID died in hospitals between December 8 and January 12, World Health Organization (WHO) officials are calling for a more comprehensive accounting of death rates.
The WHO had earlier welcomed Saturday’s announcement after warning last week that China was significantly underreporting virus deaths.
The WHO said in a statement to Reuters that it wants information on so-called excess mortality – the number of deaths that exceed the norm during a crisis.
“This is especially important during periods of surges when the health system is severely constrained,” the statement said on Monday.
The WHO added that it would continue to work with China to provide advice and support, but had not yet scheduled another formal meeting with Chinese officials following a weekend meeting between WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Ma Xiaowei, director of China’s National Health Commission.
The Ministry of Transport estimates that 2.1 billion passenger trips will be made nationwide between Jan. 7 and Feb. 15, as many Chinese city dwellers take advantage of their first opportunity since the pandemic began to visit extended family in home regions.
In early December, Chinese officials abandoned Beijing’s “zero COVID” policy, an approach previously championed by ruling Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, allowing the virus to spread unchecked across the country’s 1.4 billion people.
According to state media, 390,000 passengers were expected to travel from Shanghai train stations on Tuesday alone for the Spring Festival holiday, which is considered the world’s largest annual mass migration prior to COVID.
Despite the risks, some passengers passing through Shanghai, China’s largest city, expressed optimism.
According to industry data reported by Shanghai Securities News on Monday, the holiday season has also sparked a revival in domestic air travel, with more than 70,000 flights across China between Jan. 7-13. This is more than 80% of the levels seen prior to the pandemic.
International air connections are also improving. Emirates Airlines announced on Monday that it will resume service from its Dubai hub to Shanghai this week and will operate daily flights to Shanghai and Beijing beginning in March.
(Adapted from Reuters.com)