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China’s neighbors wary of dubious Covid data as they brace for influx of travelers

Next-door nations are preparing for a flood of visitors as cases and hospitalizations surge in the Asian giant

Coronavirus
Travelers at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport; December 29, 2022PHILIP FONG (AFP)

Countries with close ties to China are alarmed at its Covid-19 surge and are preparing for the worst when its international travel restrictions expire on January 8. After three years of strict containment measures, China has halted mass testing programs, quarantine requirements and contact tracing efforts.

But this abrupt turnabout is coinciding with one of the country’s worst waves of infections yet. In cities like Beijing, health care facilities have been overwhelmed by the sudden lifting of protective measures. The official Covid-19 data released by China is proving to be unreliable. In December, internal documents were leaked that put the number of infections for that month at 248 million, but only 450,000 were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). In other words, China only reported one of every 550 cases.

The Asian countries that received the most Chinese visitors in 2019 are now bracing for a huge influx of travelers who have been confined within their country’s borders for three years, and their Covid-19 data is telling. In 2022, Hong Kong and Japan experienced their highest infection rates ever and new outbreaks are expected. But comparing the current data to previous time periods is problematic because there is less testing now, and many more people have been vaccinated.

Hong Kong

In 2019, the year before the pandemic, more than 40 million travelers from mainland China visited Hong Kong, according to The Economist. It now has the worst infection numbers in the region. There are now more than 4,000 cases per 100,000 residents in a 14-day period, the second highest rate since the pandemic broke out. The number of Covid-related deaths has also risen – an average of 60 per day and climbing. Hong Kong residents have been flocking to vaccination centers recently in anticipation of China’s reopening.

The percentage of Hong Kong residents who are fully vaccinated has risen from 80% to 91% in the last 12 months, and almost 2.5 million citizens have had Covid-19 at least once. Local authorities believe that these factors and an experienced healthcare system enabled the territory to relax pandemic-related measures shortly after China did the same.

As of January 1, negative PCR tests are no longer required for international travelers coming to Hong Kong, and vaccination passports are no longer needed to enter public places. Mask-wearing in public is still mandatory and travelers from abroad must take an antigen test within a few days of arrival.

Japan

Japan was among those that successfully maintained low infection rates when the virus was ravaging Europe, but in 2022, it experienced its three biggest waves of the entire pandemic. Over the last 12 months, Japan has recorded more than 27 million cases, and despite a high percentage of vaccinated residents, more than 40,000 people died from the virus, double the number it had experienced so far.

The country may be past its latest peak, but the number of cases is still high and hospital admissions may soon break records. These circumstances have put Japanese authorities on high alert for the expected wave of travelers from China, who will be required to take two Covid-19 tests – one prior to departure and another upon arrival. People who test positive will be quarantined.

South Korea

In 2019, 5.5 million tourists from China visited South Korea, which is just emerging from its third wave of cases. Similar to Japan, the country recorded 1,731 cases per 100,000 residents over the last 14 days. This infection rate is far lower than the March 2020 peak of 10,000 cases per 100,000. Back then, one third of South Korea’s population was infected and deaths averaged more than 300 per day. Now, there are about 50 Covid-related deaths every day.

South Korea is also taking preventive measures to deal with China’s reopening of its borders. As of early January, travelers from China will be tested upon arrival and required to self-quarantine for seven days if they test positive.

Singapore

One in five tourists traveling to Singapore comes from China. Like Japan, the country successfully contained the virus early on in the pandemic. But in 2022, the small country with only six million residents recorded almost two million cases. Infection rates have recently plateaued at 225 cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period.

Singapore has very high vaccination rates, but still requires a certificate of vaccination or a negative test to enter the country. Following China’s announcement, Singapore’s Ministry of Public Health said it would tighten entry restrictions, if needed.

Taiwan

Taiwan experienced its worst Covid wave last spring, but cases have been rising again since December and Covid-related deaths are nearing 30 per day. CNN recently reported that Taiwan will require all travelers arriving from mainland China to take a PCR test upon arrival. Taiwan had previously banned tourists with People’s Republic of China (PRC) passports, and only allowed them to enter for work-related or family visits. Before the pandemic, 2.6 million PRC citizens visited Taiwan annually.

Malaysia

Of the nations surveyed, Malaysia performed the best. Like some others, Malaysia suffered its worst wave in 2022, but has recently recorded just 50 cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days. Hospital admissions are also manageable, with only 10 hospitalizations and one ICU admission per million residents.

Despite the encouraging situation in Malaysia, local authorities recently announced new measures for monitoring travelers from China. People’s temperatures will be taken upon arrival, and the airplane wastewater of flights from China will be analyzed.

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