Xi Jinping has expressed concern about the spread of Covid-19 to rural China on the eve of the Lunar New Year, in the Chinese president’s most direct acknowledgment of the worsening health crisis since suddenly abandoning his zero-Covid strategy in early December has.
China’s Lunar New Year marks the world’s largest annual human migration. Officials have forecast the country’s 1.4 billion people will make 2 billion trips to visit family in the coming weeks — about two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels.
Experts have warned that this period could become the largest superspreader event since the virus first emerged in Wuhan, central China, in late 2019.
Xi, speaking at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, said he was now “mainly concerned about rural areas and country people” as China enters a “new phase” of its pandemic response.
China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong called for greater efforts from lower-level officials to increase medical resources and better prepare to treat serious cases. He also ordered the reintroduction of “tighter” health measures in “nursing homes and welfare institutions,” given the vulnerability of China’s elderly.
For many urban Chinese, the holiday marks their first trip home in three years, but concerns about the infection spreading to less-protected rural areas remain. Before Xi’s speech, authorities were already advising against travel and large gatherings.
After Beijing lifted its zero-Covid restrictions last month, outbreaks in urban areas increased, and internal government estimates suggest hundreds of millions of people have contracted the virus in a matter of weeks. Authorities have reported nearly 60,000 Covid-related deaths in hospitals across the country since restrictions ended.
The State Council, China’s cabinet, last week issued strict guidelines urging villagers to restrict temple gatherings, festival performances and other mass gatherings in rural areas. The guidelines also warned returnees to “reduce contact with older people, especially those with pre-existing medical conditions.”
In recent weeks, officials in several counties in Hunan, Shaanxi and Heilongjiang provinces have issued warnings, with a local government recommending people “not to return to their hometowns unless necessary”. Authorities have also warned the internet against spreading “somber feelings” or “rumours” about the pandemic during the holiday season.China’s Transport Ministry has forecast about 2 billion trips will be made during this year’s holiday, double the number last year during the height of Covid travel restrictions © Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
The caution partly reflects concerns about poorer health infrastructure and shortages of medicines in rural areas. State media reported this month that a central government agency in charge of rural development ordered local authorities to “maintain the availability of medicines in China’s rural areas for more than two weeks.”
Zeng Guang, China’s former chief epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, urged officials to focus on efforts to control the pandemic, such as opening designated Covid stations and distributing medicines across the country, according to a local media report from last Thursday.
“Our main focus so far has been on the big cities,” Zeng said. “It’s time to focus on rural areas. Many elderly, sick and disabled people in the countryside are being left behind in terms of Covid treatment.”
The influx of travel could bring a much-needed economic boost, as Chinese consumers typically spend more on groceries, alcohol and new clothes while on vacation. “We will see many more consumers engage in tourism, which could help boost overall spending,” said Ernan Cui, consumer analyst for China at Gavekal Dragonomics.
However, recent research by Gavekal also suggests that Chinese consumers remain cautious, as many are willing to put off purchases over fears of catching the virus themselves or family members. Retail sales fell 1.8 percent in December from a year earlier, an improvement from November’s 5.9 percent drop, official data showed on Tuesday.
“High-income groups who are less affected by Covid and are already seeing the benefits of eased restrictions will be more likely to engage in ‘revenge consumption,'” Cui said, referring to pent-up demand after years of lockdown. “This is already visible in cities like Beijing. However, most people are still a bit cautious.”
The counties’ travel warnings contain no specific legal action and are unlikely to discourage citizens, many of whom remain determined to travel home.
The government’s decision in December to stop releasing daily case data encouraged Li, a 41-year-old migrant worker in Beijing, to buy train tickets to her hometown in Hubei province. Her hope that Covid is mostly over means she “will not change my travel plans,” she said.
At the Beijing railway station, a migrant worker was preparing to return home to Hebei province. “Many people have already been infected in my village,” said the worker. “There are no official rules anymore. What difference does it make to the government if I go or not?”