After three years of having the strictest Covid-19 restrictions in the world, China finally reopened borders on Sunday, 8 January. After years of lockdowns, people rejoiced as they reunited with their families.
Throughout the pandemic China has adopted a strict zero-Covid policy. The first step towards opening the borders started in November, when mandatory quarantine in a designated government facility was reduced to only 5 days, followed by 3 days of self-monitoring at home.
“In response to the pandemic, China has taken a holistic approach toward disease control and economic development, adapting response measures by keeping them science-based, targeted and responsive to the evolving situation, to minimize the impact on people’s daily life as well as overall economic and social development”, said Ambassador Fu Cong, the newly appointed Chinese Ambassador to the European Union.
The complete removal of quarantine for international travellers was announced last month and entered into effect on Sunday, having people excited not only to see family and friends again, but to be able to travel abroad once again. With the opening of the borders, China started re-issuing passports for its citizens after having stopped the procedures in March 2020. Visas for foreigners are also approved again, although at the moment only for business and family matters, with tourism to follow at a later date.
The freedom of movement comes before the Lunar New Year holiday period and is expected to see thousands travelling from big cities to their hometowns in the countryside as well as abroad. Called, China’s “great migration”, the Ministry of Transport estimates over 2 billion people will travel over the next few weeks, a staggering 99.5% increase compared to last year and 70.3% of the 2019 level.
However, at the same time as travel is resuming, so is the country’s Covid-19 caseload. Moreover, the people travelling home for the holidays risk endangering their older relatives who have not had contact with the virus or are not vaccinated. With the villages’ limited ICU capacity and ventilators, authorities have indicated a plan to boost grassroot medical services, including opening more clinics in rural areas. In the meantime, all high-risk patients are directly transferred to higher-level hospitals.
Fearing that the country is not transparently reporting the evolution of the epidemic, the European Union, along with other states around the world, started asking for negative pre-departure tests from people travelling from China. Opinions about this decision are split, with the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) calling it unjustified. The centre said testing wastewater from airplanes is sufficient for detecting possible new variants of the virus, which would be the only concern.
In response, officials from China have expressed outrage at the new requirements, calling them political rather than science based, and promised similar measures in return. “We do not believe the entry restriction measures some countries have taken against China are science-based. Some of these measures are disproportionate and simply unacceptable. We firmly reject using Covid measures for political purposes and will take corresponding measures in response to varying situations based on the principle of reciprocity”, spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry Mao Ning said at a press conference last week.