By Alvaro Alfaro and Victor Escribano
Beijing/Shanghai, Jan 21 (EFE).- After three years of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese citizens are celebrating their first Lunar New Year with relief over no restrictions, but also with caution due to experts predicting an increase in infections arising from the holiday period.
In 2021 and 2022, people who usually return to their hometowns during this festive period faced travel restrictions and recommendations from authorities to stay home under Beijing’s zero-Covid policy.
Some simply consider this year to be a return to pre-pandemic normality, with one Guangzhou resident telling EFE they want to “travel north to see the snow” but fears being disappointed “if there are too many people,” referring to the usual crowds at tourist destinations during these dates and that were not seen in 2021 and 2022.
Other comments on the country’s social media networks show relief at being able to travel freely again, with one Weibo user excited to be able to finally return home, seeing it as “a sign that our lives are getting back on track towards normality.”
Despite the fact that many provinces have calculated that most of their residents have already been infected with Covid (up to 90 percent of people in some cases), for weeks the authorities have been cautioning against the spread of the virus.
The government asked local administrations in mid-December to give priority to health services in rural areas, pointing out their relative scarcity of resources ahead of the festive period, while President Xi Jinping this week expressed concern for these areas amid the return of workers and students.
Local expert Fang Houmin advised people who have not yet been infected with Covid against traveling during the holidays.
The number of holiday trips made so far is much higher than last year, but still far off pre-pandemic figures. On Thursday, 46.1 million trips were registered, a figure that, despite representing a year-on-year increase of 55.1 percent, is still 44 percent lower than that registered on the same date in 2019.
Nevertheless, it is hoped that this will be a boost for tourism and consumer-oriented businesses, which were among the sectors most affected by the zero-Covid policy.
This week, residents will be focused on celebrating, but after the festive period, the big challenge at the national level is the reactivation of the economy, which suffered this past year as a result of restrictions and lockdowns.
Official figures reflected a gross domestic product growth of 3 percent, far off the government target of 5.5 percent, and one of the lowest figures in decades.
Paradoxically, it was zero-Covid that allowed China to establish itself as the only major world economy to resist the onslaught of the pandemic in 2020 by growing 2.2 percent, a figure that rose to 8.4 percent the following year.
However, the highly contagious Omicron variant caught the authorities off guard, and they opted to double down on restrictions to try in vain to defeat it.
British consultancy Capital Economics estimated in a report this month that, taking official indicators into account, the Chinese economy is currently 7 percent smaller than it would have been if the pre-pandemic growth rate had continued.
Now that the zero-Covid policy has been abandoned, “fears of quarantine have since been replaced by fear of getting infected,” says Capital Economics, which also acknowledges that the rapid spread of the virus – up to 900 million people could have already been infected, according to a study – could lead to a faster recovery than expected.
The “disruption (to economic activity) is already fading rapidly. Coupled with a wider shift toward more pro-growth policies, this points a reopening rebound starting this quarter and a stronger 2023 as a whole. We now expect China to grow by 5.5% this year,” the consultancy said. EFE