©Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Police guard an area to avoid mass gatherings during New Year’s Eve celebrations amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, December 31, 2022. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang/File Photo
By Martin Quin Pollard, Xiaoyu Yin and Tingshu Wang
WUHAN (Reuters) – Thousands of Chinese took to the streets to celebrate the New Year as authorities and state media tried to reassure the public that the COVID-19 outbreak that was sweeping the country is under control and moving forward nearing its climax.
Although many people in major cities continue to isolate as the virus spreads among the population, New Year’s celebrations appeared largely untouched as people celebrated the end of 2022 and the transition into 2023.
In Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first identified in late 2019, residents said fears about the impact of easing strict zero-COVID restrictions on living with the disease have now subsided — at least for the young and healthy.
“Basically, my friends and I are relatively positive and optimistic now,” said a 29-year-old tutor surnamed Wu. “Lots of people going out and about.”
“We all know that the middle-aged and elderly, especially those over 60, especially those with underlying medical conditions, will be particularly affected by this virus,” he said.
A long line of people queued at the emergency room at Wuhan’s Tongji Hospital, a key facility for COVID-19 patients, including 72-year-old resident Huang, who asked to be identified by her last name only.
“I do not feel good. i have no energy I can not breathe. I used to be in good health for a long time,” she said.
DATA UNDER AUDIT
China’s abrupt reversal in COVID controls — as well as the accuracy of its case and mortality data — has come under increasing scrutiny both at home and abroad.
The surge in cases has sparked new concerns about the health of the economy, and in his first public statements since the policy change, President Xi Jinping called for more effort and unity in a New Year’s address as China enters a “new phase.”
China reported one new mainland COVID-19 death for Dec. 31, the same as a day earlier, the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention said on Sunday.
The cumulative official death toll in China now stands at 5,249, far lower than other major countries. The government has denied claims that it intentionally underreported the total number of deaths.
At times, a stream of mourners and hearse drivers arrived at the Hankou funeral home on the outskirts of Wuhan on Sunday.
Staff at the site’s heavily guarded entrance declined to answer questions about their recent workload. But funeral homes in other cities in China – including Chengdu and Beijing – said they’ve been busier than ever since China abruptly dropped its COVID curbs last month.
China’s CDC reported 5,138 officially confirmed cases on Saturday, but as mass testing is no longer conducted, experts say the real number of infections is significantly higher.
State-run media in the southeast Chinas city of Guangzhou on Sunday said daily cases peaked at about 60,000 recently and are now at about 19,000.
Authorities have tried to reassure the public that they have the situation under control, and the state-run Xinhua News Agency published an editorial on Sunday saying the current strategy is “a planned, science-based approach” that aims to reflecting the changing nature of the virus.
Xinhua separately said drug manufacturing has accelerated over the past month, with production of pain relievers ibuprofen and acetaminophen now at 190 million tablets a day, five times higher than in early December.
The production of antigen test kits has almost doubled in one month to 110 million per day, it said.
On Sunday, Australia and Canada joined the United States and others in urging travelers from China to present negative COVID-19 tests upon arrival. Morocco will impose an entry ban on people from China, its foreign ministry said.
Australian Health Minister Mark Butler said additional measures were being considered amid concerns that China is not disclosing enough information about the nature and extent of the current outbreak.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Sunday offered to provide “necessary assistance” to China to help it deal with the surge in COVID-19 cases.