Hong Kong (CNN) — Growing Covid epidemic in China. Countries that have imposed travel restrictions on Chinese travelers fearing importation of the virus. Scientists warn against fear and xenophobia.
But this is not the beginning of 2020. A familiar scene is now playing out as China grapples with its biggest outbreak since abandoning its strict zero-Covid approach and partially opening its border to the pandemic in three years.
Almost half of the 212 passengers who arrived at Italy’s Milan airport from China on Monday tested positive for Covid, the regional health chief said on Wednesday.
But while countries including the US and Japan have moved to impose restrictions, others such as France and the UK have announced they are ready to welcome Chinese travelers, who had been a key driver of international tourism before the pandemic.
China responded by claiming the Covid situation was “under control” and accused Western media of “distorting” recent policy changes.
“The real intention is to sabotage China’s three-year-old Covid-19 control efforts and attack the country’s system,” state tabloid Global Times said in an article Thursday, citing experts who called the restrictions “unfounded” and “discriminatory.”
Which countries impose testing requirements?
Japan announced on Tuesday that all travelers who have been to or traveled to mainland China within seven days will be tested on arrival from Friday and the government will limit the number of flights to and from China.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida drew attention to the lack of official information from the Chinese government. “Although there are reports that the infection is spreading rapidly in mainland China, concern is growing in Japan as the detailed situation is difficult to understand,” he said.
Indian authorities have imposed similar guidelines for travelers not only from China, but from several nearby destinations, including Japan, South Korea and Thailand. The guidelines are aimed at ensuring that Covid does not spread as quickly as it did in China, authorities said on Tuesday.
Taiwan also announced mandatory tests on arrival for travelers from mainland China on Wednesday. The self-governing island has banned mainland Chinese tourists since the pandemic and only allows Chinese nationals to visit for business or family reasons.
In all three places, those who come back positive will be required to stay in quarantine for several days.
In Europe, both Spain and Italy have tightened restrictions. Spain now requires a negative test for Covid-19 or proof of full vaccination for visitors from China, while Italy has rolled back mandatory testing. The UK has said it is considering whether to introduce new rules.
People walk through the departure lobby with suitcases at Beijing Airport on December 27.
The measures are particularly surprising given that most of these places — especially in the West — have long since opened their borders and abandoned testing requirements as part of the transition to living with Covid.
In Europe, Italy – the first country on the continent to be hit by a widespread outbreak in 2020 – announced it would require Covid tests for all travelers from China, and the health minister said it was important to identify “any options”. “.. to protect the people of Italy.”
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said on Thursday that the increase in cases in China would not affect the Covid situation in the European Union and called restrictions on travelers from China “unjustified”.
So are options a risk?
Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledged the risk of a new variant emerging in “unvaccinated populations.”
“Even though 90% of the population (in China) is officially vaccinated with two doses of the inactivated vaccine, you still have a large proportion of the elderly who are not vaccinated … and many of those who have been vaccinated have done so. more than six months ago, so their antibody levels are already very low,” he said. “So we can’t rule out the possibility that new variants may indeed emerge in China and spread to other parts of the world.”
A US federal health official pointed to the speed of the outbreak in China, saying: “With so many people infected in China in such a short period of time, there is a chance and possibility that a new variant will emerge.”
US officials have also expressed concern about China’s lack of transparency about the recent surge in cases, particularly the lack of genome sequence data that could help detect new strains of the coronavirus.
However, GISEAD, a global virus database, said Chinese authorities had provided more genomic information from recent samples that matched variants already circulating globally.
Karen Grepin, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, said a country’s best defense against potential options is to focus on domestic policies that protect its population — boosting vaccinations, maintaining social distancing, etc. basic public health measures.
“In many parts of the world, it feels like the pandemic is over … but at the end of the day (these measures) are what prevent transmission of the virus,” he said.
“If countries are at the point where they don’t think these things matter anymore because they’ve developed so much immunity, for example, why do they care about a few new cases from China?”
Are the measures effective?
Despite the potential risk, many health experts have widely criticized the new testing requirements as ineffective at best and alarmist at worst.
“I see no compelling reason to justify this action,” said Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations. “So far, we have no evidence that such variants have emerged in mainland China.”
“I can understand the concerns because of the lack of transparency, the lack of sharing of genomic sequences,” he said. “But even with a ban, we can’t prevent the virus from spreading. And assuming that new variants do emerge in mainland China, we would only delay the spread, not prevent the virus from spreading to other regions of the world.”
Grapen repeated this idea and said: “In fact, we do not have scientific evidence to prove the effectiveness of these measures in practice.”
If an infectious variant emerges, it will likely enter the U.S. through other countries anyway, he said, noting that the restrictions had “very little impact” when Omicron emerged last fall.
The US-required pre-flight test is also somewhat effective because many new variants have a short incubation period, meaning “there will still be cases that will pass it.”
Political pressure and xenophobia
Grepin said there are several reasons why countries are imposing these restrictions despite their questionable use — one of which is the fear that Chinese Covid patients may flee elsewhere for treatment at home to hospitals.
But he added that this is highly unlikely. The volume of travel from China is still extremely low, partly due to the limited number of flights. And at the speed with which Covid is spreading, getting visas and booking flights abroad for infected patients immediately will be a logistical challenge.
Instead, the latest restrictions likely reflect “political pressure (on authorities) to appear to be doing something,” he said. “We see one country do it, and then other countries follow suit.”
Medical workers treat patients at a hospital in Jiangsu, China on December 28.
CFOTO/Future Publishing/Getty Images
Experts also warn that singling out China could raise the risk of greater anti-Chinese racism, as seen earlier in the pandemic when Asians around the world faced discrimination and violent hate crimes.
China isn’t the only place seeing an increase in jobs, Huang said. “I don’t see why China should be treated any differently than other countries like Australia, for example, which are floating in Covid,” he said.
The U.S. is probably still importing tens of thousands of cases from around the world, Grepin said, adding that 1 to 3 percent of all international travelers have Covid — so it doesn’t make sense to specifically target Covid from one country.
“We’ve seen this throughout the pandemic — when certain measures are targeted at people who come from a certain place, it reinforces stereotypes or beliefs that viruses come from certain parts of the world… That’s simply not true.” he said.
Which countries welcome Chinese tourists?
On the contrary, many countries welcome their doors.
The tourism departments and embassies of France, Thailand, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Austria and Switzerland have posted messages on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, inviting Chinese tourists.
“Chinese friends, France welcomes you with open arms!” The French Embassy wrote on Weibo. Thailand’s national tourism administration wrote: “Thailand has been waiting for you for three years!”
Many Weibo users celebrated the freedom to travel with the hashtag “Where to travel abroad next year,” which garnered nearly 80 million views.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, in 2018, China alone accounted for 51% of travel and tourism GDP in the Asia-Pacific region. Chinese travelers typically accounted for 30% of all arrivals to Thailand.
CNN’s Cheng Cheng, Pierre Meilhan, Kevin Liptak, Valentina Di Donato, Eric Cheung, Amy Jozuka, Gabby Gretener, Lauren Kent and CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
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