Hong Kong (CNN) – The outbreak of Covid in China is on the rise. Countries are imposing travel restrictions on Chinese travelers due to concerns about importing the virus. Scientists warn against fear and xenophobia.
But this is not the beginning of 2020. It’s a familiar scene as China abandons its tough approach to Covid-19 and grapples with its biggest outbreak in history after partially reopening its borders for three years amid the pandemic.
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 such as the United States and Japan have moved to impose restrictions, others such as France and Britain have said they are ready to welcome Chinese travelers, who were the main driver of international tourism before the pandemic.
China hit back, saying the Covid situation was “under control” and accusing Western media of “distorting” recent policy changes.
“The real aim is to sabotage China’s three-year effort to control Covid-19 and attack the country’s system,” the state-run Global Times said in an article published on Thursday, citing experts who called the restrictions “unreasonable” and “discriminatory”.
What countries require testing?
Japan said on Tuesday that all travelers who have visited or traveled to mainland China within a week will be screened from Friday, and the government will limit the number of flights to and from China.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pointed out the lack of official information from the Chinese government. “While there are reports that the infection is spreading rapidly in mainland China, it is difficult to understand the details of the situation, so there is growing concern in Japan,” he said.
Indian authorities have implemented similar guidelines for travelers not just from China, but from several nearby destinations, including Japan, South Korea and Thailand. The guidelines are intended to prevent Covid from spreading as quickly as it has in China, authorities said on Tuesday.
Taiwan also announced on Wednesday that it would introduce mandatory screening for travelers from mainland China. The self-governing island banned mainland Chinese tourists after the pandemic and only allows Chinese nationals to visit for business or family reasons.
Those who test positive upon arrival at the three locations will need to be quarantined for several days.
In Europe, both Spain and Italy have tightened restrictions. Spain now requires tourists from China to either have a negative Covid-19 test or proof of full vaccination, while Italy has withdrawn the mandatory test. Britain has said it is considering whether to introduce new rules.
People walk with their suitcases through the departure lobby of Beijing Airport on December 27.
The measures are particularly noteworthy as many of these places, particularly in the West, have slowly opened their borders and waived 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, has announced that all travelers from China will need to be tested for Covid, and the health minister said it was “important to identify any scenario”. .. to protect the Italian population.”
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said on Thursday that the rise in cases in China would not affect the European Union’s Covid situation, calling restrictions on travelers from China “unjustified”.
So are alternatives risky?
Yanjun Huang, senior global health officer at the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledged the risk of new variants emerging in “unvaccinated populations.”
“Although (in China) officially 90% of the population has been vaccinated with two doses of the inactivated vaccine, you still have a large percentage of elderly people who are unvaccinated … and most of the vaccinated people were vaccinated more than six months ago, so their antibodies the level is already very low,” he said. “So we can’t rule out the possibility that new variants will emerge in China and spread to other parts of the world.”
One 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 high probability, a high probability, of a new version.”
U.S. officials have also expressed concern about the lack of transparency surrounding China’s recent surge in cases, particularly the lack of genomic sequencing data to help identify new strains of the coronavirus.
However, GISEAD, a global virus database, said Chinese authorities had submitted more genomic data from recent samples that appeared to match variants circulating around the world.
Karen Grepin, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, said the country’s best defense against possible scenarios is to focus on domestic policies to increase vaccinations, social isolation and the rest of its population. basic public health measures.
“In many parts of the world, it seems like the epidemic is over … but at the end of the day (these measures) prevent the transmission of the virus,” he said.
“If countries don’t think these things are important because they’ve developed so much population immunity, what’s the point of worrying about a few new cases from China?”
Are the measures effective?
Despite the potential risks, many health experts have criticized the new testing requirements as ineffective at best and worrisome at worst.
“I don’t see any compelling reason to justify this move,” said Huang, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Currently, we have no evidence to confirm whether such scenarios are emerging in mainland China.”
“I understand the concern about transparency and the lack of sharing of genome sequences,” he added. “But even with a ban, we cannot prevent the spread of the virus. Assuming that there are indeed new variants in mainland China, we will delay the spread, we will not prevent the virus from spreading to other parts of the world.”
Grepin echoed this point, saying, “In reality, we don’t have scientific evidence to actually support the effectiveness of these measures.”
If an infectious version emerges, it could enter the U.S. through other countries anyway, he said, noting that when Omicron came out last fall, restrictions were “very minimal.”
Because many new variants have short incubation periods, the pre-flight testing required by the United States is only partially effective, he added.
Political pressure and xenophobia
Grepin said countries may be imposing these restrictions, even if they are skeptical about using them, for a number of reasons — including fears that China’s Covid patients may flee elsewhere for treatment in hospitals at home.
But that’s unlikely, he added. Outbound travel from China remains very low, in part due to the limited number of flights. With the speed at which Covid is spreading, it will be a logistical challenge to get visas immediately and book flights abroad for infected patients.
Instead, the latest restrictions may reflect “political pressure (on the authorities) to appear to be doing something.” “We see one country do it, and then other countries follow suit.”
Medical staff treat patients at a hospital in Jiangsu, China, on December 28.
CFOTO/Future Publishing/Getty Images
Experts also warn that highlighting China at the beginning of an epidemic of discrimination and hate violence against Asians around the world could increase the risk of escalating anti-Chinese racism.
China is not the only place where cases are increasing, Huang said. “I don’t see why China should be treated any differently than other countries like Australia, where Covid is swimming around, for example,” he added.
The US is probably still importing tens of thousands of cases from around the world, Grepin said, adding that 1-3% of all international travelers have Covid – so it doesn’t make sense to specifically target Covid from one country.
“We saw this during the pandemic – certain measures targeting people coming from certain places reinforces stereotypes and beliefs that the virus is coming from certain parts of the world… It’s just not true.” he said.
Which countries welcome Chinese tourists?
On the contrary, many countries have opened their doors.
The tourism departments and embassies of France, Thailand, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Austria and Switzerland posted messages inviting Chinese tourists on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
“Friends of China, France welcomes you with open arms!” The French embassy wrote on Weibo. “Thailand has been waiting for you for three years!”
Many Weibo users celebrated their freedom to travel with the hashtag “Where to travel abroad next year” and received nearly 80 million views.
According to the World Tourism Council, in 2018, China alone accounted for 51 percent of the Asia-Pacific region’s tourism GDP. Chinese travelers account for 30 percent of tourists 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 reporting.