China Is Reopening, But It’s a Long Road Back to Normality

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From Jan. 8, China looks to reopen its borders for inbound and outbound travel. Photo: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

After three years of strict pandemic border restrictions that largely shut off China from the rest of the world, the country is looking to reopen in the new year.  

Starting Jan. 8, inbound travelers will only need to show a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours of departure, China’s National Health Commission said Monday. This replaces the previous rule of requiring arriving visitors to spend five days in hotel quarantine and a subsequent three days of self-isolation at home, requirements that have deterred many would-be travelers.

These changes come after China’s self-imposed zero-COVID policy has weakened its economy and caused widespread social discontent. Nearly one in five young people in China are jobless, and mass layoffs have hit multiple sectors.

In November, thousands across Chinese cities demonstrated against the disruptive COVID-19 restrictions after nearly three years of lockdowns. The protests were triggered by a fire in western China that killed 10 people. Protesters blamed pandemic restrictions for delaying rescue efforts, and some even directed their anger at the ruling Chinese Communist Party in a rare challenge to its authority

Since those landmark acts of dissent, China has abandoned key aspects of its zero-COVID policy, like letting people with mild or no symptoms of COVID-19 to isolate at home rather than stay at centralized quarantine facilities. They also no longer need to show tests before entering most venues.

But since easing restrictions, China is witnessing an alarming jump in COVID-19 cases with reports of overwhelmed hospitals and a shortage of drugs. Experts predict that more than a million people could die from COVID-19.

Still, China’s top health authority announced on Sunday that it’d stop publishing daily COVID-19 cases and death totals, stoking concerns that the country might not be able to keep up with the exploding cases

In light of China’s worrying spread, Japan announced that it’ll require a negative COVID-19 test from all visitors from the country, starting Friday. Those who test positive will be required to quarantine for seven days. Italy also plans to test incoming travelers from China.

On Dec. 24, India too announced it’d require a negative test for incoming travelers from China, among other nations.

On Chinese social media, users celebrated the reopened borders but expressed hesitation about traveling while cases were soaring. 

“Why can’t we wait until this wave passes to open up? The medical workers are already worn out, and old people won’t survive two infections in one month,” one user commented on the microblogging site Weibo. 

Chinese travel agencies are reporting an increasing volume of searches for international travel since the country announced it’d lift restrictions.

Ctrip saw a 10-fold increase in searches for top tourist destinations, such as Macao, Hong Kong, Japan, and Thailand, compared to the same period last year just within 30 minutes of Monday’s announcement, Chinese state-run newspaper China Daily reported.

Ly.com, another travel agency, reported that the search volume for international flight tickets increased by 850 percent after the announcement was made. 

Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.

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