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China announces the silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud on the eve of the travel rush

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China said the worst was over in its long and arduous battle against COVID-19 on the eve of what is expected to be its busiest travel day in years on Friday, raising fears of a possible resurgence of infections due to the mass movement of people.

Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan, who is overseeing China’s response to the virus, said the outbreak was at a “relatively low” level, state media reported late Thursday, after health officials said the number of COVID-19 patients in clinics and rooms emergencies and in critical cases. Conditions were at their peak.

But there is widespread skepticism about China’s version of the outbreak that has overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums since Beijing abandoned strict COVID-19 controls and mass testing last month and unleashed the virus on its 1.4 billion people after protests against its anti-COVID policy.

Some health experts expect more than 1 million people to die from the disease in China this year, and UK health data firm Airfinity predicts COVID-19 deaths could reach 36,000 per day next week.

“Recently, the general epidemic in the country has reached a relatively low level,” Sun said in remarks reported by the state-run news agency Xinhua.

“The number of critical patients in hospitals is steadily declining, although the rescue mission remains heavy.”

Her comments came on the eve of what is expected to be the busiest travel day across China since the pandemic hit in late 2019, as millions of city-dwellers travel to home towns for the Lunar New Year holiday, which officially begins on Saturday.

President Xi Jinping said this week he was concerned about the influx of travelers into rural areas with weak medical systems, and that protecting the elderly — many of whom were not fully vaccinated — was a top priority.

According to a report published by the World Health Organization on Thursday, China recorded a significant jump in hospital admissions due to the emerging corona virus in the week to January 15, to the highest level since the start of the epidemic.

The number of hospitalizations rose 70% in the previous week to 63,307, according to the World Health Organization, citing data provided by Beijing.

But at a news conference Thursday, health officials said the number of COVID-19 patients reporting to the hospital had peaked with a more than 40% drop in critically ill people treated on Jan. 17 compared with the Jan. 5 peak.

China said last Saturday that nearly 60,000 people with COVID-19 had died in hospitals between January 8 and January 12 — nearly 10 times more than previously disclosed.

However, that number excludes those who died at home, and some doctors in China said they discourage COVID-19 from being put on death certificates.

As China’s reopening proves deadly, investors hope it will eventually help revive its $17 trillion economy, placing bets that have lifted Chinese stocks and its currency, the yuan, to multi-month highs in recent sessions.

“Markets widely expect that a surge in pent-up demand will be triggered by the reopening of the Chinese economy,” Nomura analysts said in a note.

But analysts cautioned that declining household wealth and high youth unemployment, a hangover from years of lockdown, could dampen the recovery.

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