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Journalists“ COVID deaths reported amid fears of Lunar New Year virus spread


Two veteran Chinese state media journalists have died from COVID-19 in the capital Beijing in recent days, media said on Friday, among the first reported deaths since the government abandoned its strict “zero-COVID” policy of curbs and lockdowns.

Yang Lianghua, 74, a former People’s Daily reporter, died on Thursday, while Zhou Zhichun, 77, a former China Youth Daily editor, died a week earlier, financial magazine Caixin said, citing their families.

China’s national health authority has not reported any official COVID deaths since dismantling some of the world’s toughest domestic epidemic control policies on Dec. 7. The last official deaths were reported on Dec. 3, in Shandong and Sichuan provinces.

Reports of the deaths came as China set out urgent plans on Friday to protect rural communities from the virus as millions of city-dwellers planned their Lunar New Year holidays, starting on Jan. 22, for the first time in years.

China’s move last week to start aligning with a world that has largely opened up to live with the virus followed unprecedented protests against President Xi Jinping’s signature “zero-COVID” policies designed to stamp out COVID.

But the excitement that met this dramatic U-turn has cooled amid concerns that China is unprepared for the coming wave of infections, and the blow it could deliver to the world’s second-largest economy.

China reported 2,157 new symptomatic COVID-19 infections on Thursday, compared with 2,000 the previous day.

The official figures, however, do not capture the whole picture as testing has dropped and are at odds with signs of a wider spread in cities where long queues outside fever clinics and empty pharmacy shelves have become a common sight.

Concern is mounting over China’s hinterland in the run-up to the Lunar New Year when rural areas are likely to be inundated with travellers returning to their home towns and villages, which have had little exposure to the virus during the three years since the pandemic erupted.

China’s National Health Commission said on Friday it was ramping up vaccinations and building stocks of ventilators, essential drugs and test kits in rural areas. It also advised travellers to reduce contact with elderly relatives.

A day after the White House said the United States was ready to help if China requested it, a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said on Friday that Australia “stands ready” to continue COVID-19 collaboration that has so far included the supply of medical equipment and joint research work.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin did not respond directly to questions about the U.S. offer but said on Thursday that China had “institutional advantages” to fight COVID.

Mainland China’s international borders remain largely shut, but recent decisions to abandon testing prior to domestic travel and disable apps that track people’s journey history have freed up people to move around the country.

One of China’s most populous provinces, Henan, cancelled all holidays for healthcare staff until the end of March to ensure “a smooth transition” as COVID restrictions ease, state media reported.

Multiple cities across the country of 1.4 billion people also opened new vaccination sites to encourage the public to take booster shots, the state-run Global Times newspaper reported.

Hong Kong said on Friday its adult residents could get a fifth shot, with infections there on the rise in recent months.

“Go all out” was the message from China’s state asset regulator in a statement that urged government-owned drugmakers to ensure supplies of COVID-related medicines to meet “the rapid increase” in demand.

Thanks to the government’s previously uncompromising controls, China got off lightly compared with many other countries during the pandemic over the past three years, but now many Chinese are resigned to catching the virus at some point.

“Everyone will get it, I guess,” a 29-year-old Beijing resident who requested to be identified by her surname Du, told Reuters on the streets of Beijing.

Analysts fear China will pay a price for letting the virus rapidly rip through a population that lacks “herd immunity” and has low vaccination rates among the elderly.

That has dented prospects for near-term growth, even if the opening up should eventually revive China’s battered economy.

JPMorgan on Friday revised down its expectations for China’s 2022 growth to 2.8%, which is well below the country’s official target of 5.5% and would mark one of its worst performances in almost half a century.

China is bracing for “a transitional pain period”, analysts at the bank said, adding they expected infections to spike after the Lunar New Year before the economy starts to recover in mid-2023.

President Xi, his ruling Politburo and senior government officials are holding their annual Central Economic Work Conference this week, sources told Reuters.

China’s top state planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission, said “arduous efforts” are needed to sustain the recovery in growth due to an adverse external environment and the global economy’s loss of momentum.

China’s yuan firmed on Friday as traders remained optimistic that more measures to support the economy would emerge from the conference.

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