China keeps virus at bay at high cost ahead of Olympics



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BEIJING (AP) – International travel agency Beizhong in the eastern city of Tianjin has had only one customer since the coronavirus outbreaks that began in July prompted Chinese leaders to renew the city’s closures and travel controls.

Most of China is virus-free, but the abrupt and severe response to epidemics has left potential tourists nervous about going to places where they might be banned from leaving. This has affected consumer spending, hampering efforts to keep the economic recovery on track.

China’s “zero tolerance” strategy of trying to isolate each case and stop transmission has helped keep the country where the virus was first detected in late 2019 largely disease-free. But the public and businesses are paying a heavy price.

Foreign athletes are due to compete in the Winter Olympics, which kick off Feb. 4 in Beijing and neighboring Zhangjiakou, but the government has yet to say whether the restrictions that prevent most foreigners from entering China will be relaxed to allow spectators to enter.

“Two years ago it was our busiest season,” said Beizhong agency director Wang Hui.

“Now clients tend to postpone their plans due to outbreaks,” Wang said. “This year is worse than last year.”

China is closed to most foreign visitors and discourages its own public from traveling.

The government has yet to give the final details on anti-coronavirus measures for the Winter Games. Some 2,900 athletes are scheduled to compete, plus 800 more at the Paralympic Winter Games March 4-13.

China has reported 4,636 deaths – and none since February – out of 95,577 cases since the start of 2020. Its total is lower than the numbers of new day-to-day infections in the United States, India and some other countries.

Since July, outbreaks blamed on travelers bringing the most contagious variant of the delta to the country have occurred in Nanjing west of Shanghai, Putian and Xiamen in the southeast, and Yunnan province in the southeast. Where is. But the cases number in the tens, not the tens of thousands of new daily infections seen in other countries.

“The zero tolerance policy has been very effective in bringing COVID under control, but the short-term cost is also extremely high,” Macquarie economists Larry Hu and Xinyu Ji said in a report.

China was the only major economy to grow last year after the ruling party declared the virus under control in March and allowed factories, stores and offices to reopen. In the United States, Europe and Japan, production contracted.

Economic output rose 1.3% from the previous quarter in the three months ending June, better than 0.6% in January-March but among the weakest quarters of the past decade.

The International Monetary Fund and private sector forecasters have lowered forecasts for economic growth, but still expect output to rise to 8.5% this year, up sharply from the decades-long low in 2.3% from last year and well above the ruling party’s target of “over 6%.” “

Exports in August were up 25.6% from the previous year, but growth in retail spending slowed to 2.5% from 8.5% in July.

“People are clearly worried about getting trapped in tourist destinations if cases of Covid emerge,” ING economist Iris Pang said in a report.

On September 12, authorities suspended most access to Putian, a city of 2.9 million people in Fujian province, after an epidemic which, according to an official newspaper, Global Times, could have started with a resident back from Singapore. Cinemas, bars and other public facilities have been closed. Supermarkets and restaurants have been ordered to limit the number of customers.

Xiamen, a coastal Fujian business center with a population of 3.5 million, has closed access to some neighborhoods after cases were detected there. Closed schools.

An entrepreneur who sells shoes made in Putian online said the outbreak and disease controls have shut down the local industry.

“Customers are urging us to deliver goods, but factories have stopped working,” said trader Su Ye. She said September and October are generally busy, but production and delivery disruptions “will cause orders to drop sharply.”

“Many orders have been canceled due to our slow delivery,” Su said.

The Global Times said a man who returned from Singapore on August 4 was suspected of spreading the virus in Putian.

The traveler, identified by the surname Lin, underwent 14-day quarantine and nine nucleic acid and serological tests, all negative, according to the Global Times. But he tested positive on September 10.

Despite this, the screening and quarantine process is working fine, according to Yu Changping, a doctor in the respiratory medicine department of Wuhan University People’s Hospital.

“There is no particular change in the situation,” Yu said. “There is no need to adopt measures different from the past. “

Some experts suggest that China may need to adopt more flexible tactics because “zero tolerance” is too disruptive and new variants may be impossible to eradicate.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think they can keep the virus out, and they have to live with reality,” said Nicholas Thomas, professor of health security at City University of Hong Kong.

Chinese leaders have tried to stifle public debate on such a possible change.

A prominent disease expert, Zhang Wenzhong, has come under official criticism after he said on his widely read social media account that the world must “learn to coexist with the virus.”

A former health minister rejected Zhang’s suggestion in a commentary published by the Communist Party newspaper, People’s Daily. The university that awarded Zhang’s doctorate in 2000 announced an investigation into plagiarism charges, but concluded that his work “met all the criteria” for the degree.

For now, arrivals of tourists from abroad are closed. It devastated upscale hotels and resorts.

Some engineers and other employees who were abroad when the government cut off travel in early 2020 have been allowed to return, but lawyers and others say they have been turned away.

The authorities are also trying to prevent the Chinese from leaving the country. The government refuses to issue or renew passports without a significant need to travel. Business people were told that this did not include visits from customers or business partners.

The government announced last week that it had vaccinated just over a billion people, or 71% of its population.

But while regulators have given emergency approval to nine coronavirus vaccines, most are made by local companies Sinopharm or Sinovac. China has yet to approve BioNTech, Moderna, or other vaccines used overseas.

“Regarding the vaccine strategy, it was very effective, the problem is that the Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines are not very effective against delta,” Thomas said.

As is the case elsewhere, online grocers and other online businesses have reaped a boon from closings and closings.

But a wave of bankruptcies hit small businesses, restaurants and other businesses.

China’s heavily populated domestic market means travel restrictions “don’t have as much of an impact as countries like Thailand that rely heavily on tourism,” Trinh Nguyen of Natixis, a French finance company, said in a statement. E-mail.

In another blow to tourism, the government has told students and teachers to avoid traveling during the September Mid-Autumn Festival and the National Day break from October 1-7.

“There was a silver September and a golden October for travel, but now we have nothing left,” said Wang, director of the travel agency in Tianjin.

People with cancer, heart disease and other life-threatening chronic illnesses struggled to seek treatment as hospitals shut down other departments to focus on treating coronavirus patients or refused to accept cases deemed non-urgent.

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Wu reported from Taipei. PA researchers Yu Bing in Beijing and Chen Si in Shanghai contributed.

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