China’s big cities are starting to look past Covid as rural areas prepare for infections

Subway passenger traffic in Shanghai is quickly returning to levels seen before the latest Covid wave, according to Wind data. The picture here shows a subway car in the city on January 4, 2023.

Hugo Hu | Getty Images News | Getty Images

BEIJING – China will likely be able to cope with Covid-19 by the end of March, based on how quickly people have returned to the streets, said Larry Hu, chief China economist at Macquarie.

Subway and road data show that traffic in major cities is increasing, he pointed out, indicating that the worst of the latest Covid wave has passed.

“The dramatic U-turn in China’s Covid policy since mid-November implies a deeper short-term economic contraction but faster reopening and recovery,” Hu said in a report on Wednesday. “The economy can see a strong recovery in the spring.”

In recent days, the southern city of Guangzhou and the tourist destination of Sanya have said they had passed the peak of the Covid wave.

Chongqing’s municipal health authorities said on Tuesday that daily visitors to major fever clinics were just over 3,000 – a sharp drop from Dec. 16, when the number of patients admitted topped 30,000. The region at the provincial level has a population of about 32 million.

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Chongqing was the most congested city in mainland China during Thursday morning’s rush hour, according to Baidu traffic data. The figures showed increased traffic from a week ago across Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other major cities.

As of Wednesday, subway ridership in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou had risen significantly from the lowest levels of the past few weeks — but had only recovered to about two-thirds of last year’s levels, according to Wind Information.

Caixin’s monthly survey of service firms in December showed they were the most optimistic they had been in about a year and a half, according to a release on Thursday. The seasonally adjusted business activity index rose to 48 in December, up from a six-month low of 46.7 in November.

This reading below 50 still indicates a slowdown in business activity. The index for a separate Caixin survey of manufacturers fell to 49 in December from 49.4 in November. Their optimism was the highest in ten months.

Poorer, rural areas next

Shanghai medical researchers projected in a study that the latest Covid wave would pass through major Chinese cities by the end of 2022, while rural areas – and more distant provinces in central and western China – would be hit by infections in the middle to late January.

“The duration and scale of the upcoming outbreak may be dramatically enhanced by the extensive travel during the Spring Festival (January 21, 2023),” the researchers said in a paper published in late December by Frontiers of Medicine, a journal sponsored by China’s Ministry of Education.

Typically, hundreds of millions of people travel during the holiday, also known as the Lunar New Year.

The researchers said that senior citizens, especially those with underlying health conditions, in China’s remote areas face a greater risk of serious illness from the highly transmissible omicron variant. The authors were particularly concerned about the lack of medicine and intensive care units in the countryside.

Even before the pandemic, China’s public health system was stretched. People from all over the country often traveled to overcrowded hospitals in the capital, Beijing, to get better health care than they could in their hometowns.

Oxford Economics Senior Economist Louise Loo remained cautious about a rapid recovery in China’s economy.

“A normalization of economic activity will take some time, which requires, among other things, a change in public perception of contracting Covid and vaccine effectiveness,” Loo said in a report on Wednesday.

The firm expects China’s GDP to grow by 4.2% in 2023.

Persistent long-term risk

The medical researchers also warned of the risk that omicron outbreaks on the mainland “could occur in several waves,” with new increases in infections possible in late 2023. “The importance of regular surveillance of circulating SARS-CoV-2 sub-lineages and variants throughout China should not be overstated in the coming months and years.”

But amid a lack of timely information, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday that it was asking China for “faster, regular, reliable data on hospitalizations and deaths as well as more extensive real-time viral sequencing.”

China in early December abruptly ended many of its strict Covid controls that had limited business and social activity. On Sunday, the country is set to formally end a quarantine requirement for inbound travelers while restoring the ability of Chinese nationals to travel abroad for leisure. The country introduced strict border controls starting in March 2020 in an attempt to limit Covid domestically.

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