Nearly 90% of people in China’s third most populous province are now infected with Covid-19, a senior local official said, as the country grapples with an unprecedented surge in cases.
Kan Kuancheng, director of the health commission for the central province of Henan, told a press conference that “as of January 6, 2023, the province’s Covid infection rate is 89 percent.”
With a population of 99.4 million, the figures show that around 88.5 million people in Henan may now be infected.
Fever clinic visits peaked on Dec. 19, Kahn said, “after which it showed a continuous downward trend.”
The opening of China’s borders on Sunday was one of the latest steps in the dismantling of the country’s Covid-free regime, which began last month after historic protests led to a huge wave of infections.
The number of Covid cases is expected to rise further as the country celebrates the Lunar New Year later this month, with millions traveling from major cities to visit vulnerable elderly relatives in the countryside.
In the first wave of pre-holiday trips, official data show that 34.7 million people traveled in the country on Saturday, which is more than a third compared to last year, according to state media.
While Beijing’s move to lift the quarantine is expected to boost foreign travel, many nations are requiring negative tests from visitors from China, seeking to contain the outbreak that has overwhelmed many Chinese hospitals and crematoriums.
Officially, China has reported only 5,272 deaths from Covid as of January 8, one of the lowest death rates from the infection in the world.
However, the World Health Organization has said that China is underreporting the scale of the epidemic, and international health experts estimate that more than a million people in the country could die from the disease this year.
China’s top health officials and state media have repeatedly said that Covid infections are peaking across the country and that they are playing down the threat the disease now poses.
“Life is moving forward again!” the Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, wrote in an editorial on Sunday praising the government’s anti-virus policy, which it said had shifted from “preventing infection” to “preventing serious diseases”.
“Today the virus is weak, we are stronger.
China’s state news agency Xinhua said the country has entered a “new phase” in its response to Covid.
Asian shares rose to a five-month high on Monday as investors bet that the reopening of China would help revive the $17 billion economy and improve the outlook for global growth.
“It’s a huge relief to be able to go back to normal … just go back to China, get off the plane, take a taxi and go home,” Michael Harold, 61, a copy editor in Beijing, told Reuters. Beijing Capital International Airport on Sunday after arriving on a flight from Warsaw.
Harrold said he expected to have to quarantine and undergo several rounds of testing upon his return when he went to Europe for Christmas break in early December.
State broadcaster CCTV reported on Sunday that direct flights from South Korea to China were almost sold out.
However, the surge in demand will be hampered by the limited number of flights to and from China, which are currently at a fraction of pre-Covid levels.
Korean Air said earlier this month it was suspending a plan to increase flights to China because of Seoul’s wary attitude toward Chinese travelers. South Korea, like many other countries, now requires travelers from China, Macau and Hong Kong to submit negative Covid test results before departure.
Flight Master data showed that China had a total of 245 international flights on Sunday, combining arrivals and departures, compared with 2,546 flights on the same day in 2019, a 91% drop.
China’s domestic tourism receipts are expected to recover to 70-75% of pre-Covid levels in 2023, but inbound and outbound travel this year is forecast to reach only 30-40% of pre-Covid levels, China News reports. Sunday.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report