But it had also isolated them from the rest of the world. On Sunday, travelers poured into China by air, land, and sea, many looking forward to long-awaited reunions, as Beijing restored borders that had been all but closed since the COVID-19 pandemic’s beginning.
After three years, mainland China removed the last piece of a zero-COVID policy that had protected China’s 1.4 billion people from the disease but also isolated them from the rest of the world by allowing sea and land crossings with Hong Kong and ending the requirement for incoming travelers to undergo quarantine.
Following historic demonstrations against a program that included regular testing, restrictions on travel, and mass lockdowns that seriously harmed the second-largest economy, China has just loosened one of the strictest COVID systems in the world.
For flights to places on the mainland including Beijing, Tianjin, and Xiamen, there were long lines at the check-in booths at the Hong Kong international airport. Numerous thousands, according to Hong Kong media reports, were crossing.
“I’m ecstatic, joyful, and delighted. Teresa Chow, a native of Hong Kong, said as she and scores of other travelers prepared to enter mainland China through Hong Kong’s Lok Ma Chau gate, “I haven’t seen my parents in a long time.
“My parents are not in good health and I couldn’t go back to see them even when they had colon cancer, so I’m really happy to go back and see them now,” she said.
Investors are hoping that the reopening would boost the $17 trillion economy, which is now experiencing its worst growth in over 50 years. However, the rapid policy change has resulted in a large infection surge that is overloading certain hospitals and disrupting operations.
The border opened on Saturday, marking the beginning of “Chun Yun,” a 40-day period of travel associated with the Lunar New Year. Prior to the epidemic, this period saw the highest yearly migration in history as people traveled back to their hometowns or spent time with family.
According to the government, 2 billion journeys are anticipated this season, almost twice as many as last year and returning to levels that were reached in 2019.
At the Beijing Capital International Airport, families and friends exchanged emotional hugs and greetings with passengers arriving from places such as Hong Kong, Warsaw, and Frankfurt, meetings impossible just a day earlier.
“I’ve been looking forward to the reopening for a long time. Finally, we are reconnected with the world. I’m thrilled, I can’t believe it’s happening,” said a businesswoman surnamed Shen, 55, who flew in from Hong Kong.
Others waiting at the airport included a group of women with long-lens cameras hoping to catch a glimpse of the boy band Tempest, the first idol group from South Korea to enter China in three years.
“It’s so good to see them in person! They are much more handsome and taller than I expected,” said a 19-year-old who gave her name as Xinyi, after chasing the seven-member group, who arrived in Beijing from Seoul.
CONCERNS OVER RURAL AREAS
China downgraded its COVID management to Category B from A, which allowed local authorities to quarantine patients and their close contacts and lock down regions.
But concerns remain that the great migration of city workers to their hometowns and reopening of borders may cause a surge in infections in smaller towns and rural areas that are less equipped with intensive-care beds and ventilators.
The World Health Organisation said on Wednesday that China’s COVID data underrepresents the number of hospitalizations and deaths from the disease.
Chinese officials and state media defended the handling of the outbreak, playing down the severity of the surge and denouncing foreign travel requirements for Chinese residents.
Jiao Yahui, an official from the National Health Commission, said in an interview published by state broadcaster CCTV on Sunday that demand for emergency and critical care in China’s large cities had likely peaked but was rising fast in small and midsize cities and rural areas due to the Lunar New Year travel.
Some 80% of ICU beds in China’s top- and second-tier hospitals were in use, up from 54% on Dec. 25, she said, adding that the country’s medical services to treat COVID were facing an “unprecedented challenge”.
Health officials told a news conference they would not rule out the possibility of taking emergency COVID prevention measures such as suspending nonessential large-scale activities and business at large entertainment venues to deal with large outbreaks.
China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced two new daily COVID deaths on the mainland, compared with three a day earlier, bringing the official death toll to 5,269.