Tokyo — Celebrations are underway all over the world this week as Asians mark the Lunar New Year. It’s always the most festive time of the year in China, but that’s especially true this year. After Beijing suddenly dropped virtually all of its draconian COVID-19 restrictions for the first time since 2020, millions of people headed home to their towns and villages, taking full advantage of their new-found freedom.
But the vast holiday migration came hard on the heels of a surge in coronavirus cases across China. Public health officials warned the travellers might carry the virus into remote regions and precipitate another killer wave of infections.
In his New Year video address, President Xi Jinping admitted that China’s most recent COVID surge had been fierce and fast, and it was no understatement.
Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 80% of China’s population — a population of more than 1.4 billion people, four times that of the United States — has now been infected with the virus. Most of those infections have come just since the start of December.
Chinese health officials have confirmed only about 80,000 deaths from COVID-19, but Western analysts believe that’s a wild understatement of the real impact.
Rasmus Bech Hansen, CEO of the health analytics company Airfinity, told CBS News the number of deaths from COVID-19 in China was expected to peak within the next week or so, “and it will reach the 1-million mark. So, 1 million total deaths at the end of this month.”
The true figure may never become clear, especially as Chinese doctors have been under pressure not to list COVID as a cause on death certificates.
With that backdrop, millions of Chinese city dwellers took to trains, planes and automobiles over the last week to head back to visit family across the enormous country for the Lunar New Year.
The concern was that the urbanites could bring the virus back with them, into places where people are generally less-well vaccinated and populations are often older, possibly setting off another massive wave of infections.
CBS News visited the provincial city of Zhaotong, where we shot video covertly as COVID-19 is still a sensitive subject for authorities.
We found that the virus had arrived some time ago. One woman told us her mother had recently tested positive, and a man said it seemed that almost everyone in town — 80% by his own estimation — had been infected.
It does appear that, as the country’s leaders have said, China’s COVID-19 outbreak has finally peaked and is starting to decline.
If that’s true, and the economy starts picking up, the New Year of the Rabbit will be off to an auspicious start.