International tensions rise over China’s Covid outbreak

HONG KONG — On the first day of unimpeded travel between mainland China and Hong Kong, Olivia Gai was one of the first in line. 

Crossing the border from the Chinese territory of Hong Kong to the mainland had been a hassle since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, requiring weeks of quarantine. But this time, it was smooth and swift, said Gai, 27, who works in wealth management.

As she entered the mainland city of Shenzhen, “I saw two extremely festive display boards and the staff said I could write a wish and put it on — so many people were writing and taking pictures,” Gai said via Xiaohongshu, China’s version of Instagram. “I was about to cry at that moment.”

China reopened to the world Sunday after three years of isolation, ending quarantine requirements for inbound travelers and issuing its citizens passports for tourism again. The hurried lifting of “zero-Covid” restrictions after mass protests has accelerated what appears to be China’s worst outbreak of the pandemic, leading the United States and many other governments to impose restrictions on travelers from the world’s second-largest economy.

The U.S., the World Health Organization and others have said China is not being transparent about the extent of its outbreak, and that the lack of information raises the risk of a new variant of concern emerging undetected. 

China, in turn, has criticized the new testing and other requirements as unscientific and discriminatory, and threatened to take countermeasures. On Tuesday, the Chinese embassies in South Korea and Japan said they would stop issuing short-term visas for travelers to China. 

“We once again call on relevant countries to make sure that their Covid response measures are fact-based, science-based and proportionate,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a regular news briefing Tuesday. China itself still requires all arriving passengers to have tested negative for the virus within 48 hours of departure from their points of origin.

Social media users in China had expressed anger over the strict border measures in South Korea, sharing videos of travelers from China wearing yellow cards around their necks and being escorted for testing on arrival by South Korean soldiers in uniform. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency told NBC News that the soldiers were asked to assist in the rush to implement the new arrival procedures and that trained quarantine staff would help travelers from China find the testing area starting Wednesday.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry says its restrictions on travelers from China are based on science. Japan said Wednesday that it had lodged a protest to China over the suspension of visas.

The U.S. and other countries imposing restrictions have cited a lack of data from China, which is a “black box” when it comes to its current Covid outbreak, said Ho-fung Hung, an associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

The country, which narrowly defines Covid-related deaths, has reported only about three dozen in the last month, a number wildly out of sync with anecdotal reports and social media images of overwhelmed crematoriums and funeral homes. According to some estimates, China’s Covid death toll could reach 1 million or more in the coming months.

The government’s low official case numbers are also at odds with local reports. A spokesperson for the provincial government in Henan said Monday that as of Jan. 6, 89% of the province’s 99 million people had been infected. The number of patients visiting “fever clinics” for treatment has declined continuously since peaking Dec. 19, the spokesperson said.  

Experts including Hung say it’s possible that the Chinese government itself doesn’t have exact numbers, especially since mass testing programs have ended and many people with mild infections are recovering at home without reporting them.

“It’s challenging to collect these data with accuracy in the context of an acute epidemic,” said Karen Grépin, an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong.

Chinese officials reject claims that they have not shared information transparently. They say the outbreak is predictable and under control, and that life is returning to normal in cities and provinces where cases have already peaked.

Nonetheless, more countries have begun requiring negative Covid tests for travelers from China, and at least one country, Morocco, has banned arrivals entirely. 

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