Chinese travelers are ready to go abroad again. Some countries hesitate
Hong Kong (CNN) — A Covid outbreak in China. Country imposing travel restrictions on Chinese travelers, wary of importing the virus. Scientists warn against fear and xenophobia.
But it’s not the start of 2020. The familiar scene is playing out now as China battles its biggest outbreak ever, having abandoned its strict zero-Covid approach and partially reopened its border three years after the start of the pandemic.
Almost half of the 212 passengers who arrived at Italy’s Milan airport from China on Monday tested positive for Covid, a regional health chief said on Wednesday.
But as countries like the United States and Japan move to impose restrictions, others like France and Britain have made clear they are ready to welcome Chinese travelers – who, before the pandemic, had been a major driver of international tourism.
Which countries have testing requirements?
Japan announced on Tuesday that all travelers who have visited or traveled to mainland China within seven days will be tested upon arrival from Friday, and that the government will limit the number of flights to and from China. .
The country’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, pointed to the lack of official data from the Chinese government. “Although there are reports that the infection is spreading rapidly in mainland China, concern is growing in Japan because it is difficult to grasp the detailed situation,” he said.
Indian authorities have implemented similar guidelines for travelers not only from China, but also from several nearby locations, including Japan, South Korea and Thailand. The guidelines aim to ensure that Covid does not spread rapidly as it has in China, authorities said on Tuesday.
Taiwan also announced mandatory testing 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 citizens to visit for business or family reasons.
In all three locations, people found positive on arrival will need to quarantine for several days.
People walk with suitcases in a Beijing airport departure hall on December 27.
The measures are particularly stark given that most of these places – especially in the West – have long since reopened their borders and dropped testing requirements as part of the transition to life with Covid. China responded on Wednesday by saying its Covid situation was “under control” and accused Western media of “distorting” its recent policy changes.
In Europe, Italy – the first country on the continent to be hit by a generalized epidemic in 2020 – announced it would require Covid tests for all travelers from China, with the health minister saying it was essential to identify “any variant”. .. in order to protect the Italian population.”
European Union health security officials will also meet on Thursday to discuss the outbreak in China and any “possible measures”, the European Commission said on Twitter.
So, are variants a risk?
Yanzhong Huang, a senior global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledged the risk of a new variant emerging in “unvaccinated populations”.
“Even though (in China) officially 90% of the population is vaccinated with two doses of inactivated vaccines, you still have a large percentage of older people who are not vaccinated … and a lot of vaccinated people have done so. there is over six months old, so their antibody levels are already very low,” he said. “We therefore cannot rule out the possibility that new variants may indeed emerge in China and spread to other parts of the world.”
A U.S. federal health official highlighted the rapidity of the outbreak in China, saying, “With so many people in China infected in a short period of time, there is a chance and likelihood that a new variant will emerge.”
U.S. officials have also expressed concerns about China’s lack of transparency over the recent surge in cases, particularly the lack of genome sequencing information that could help detect new strains of coronavirus.
However, GISEAD, a global virus database, said Chinese authorities had submitted more genomic information from recent samples – and this appears to match variants already circulating around the world.
Karen Grepin, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, said a country’s best defense against potential variants was to focus on national policies that protect its own people – like the scaling up vaccinations, maintaining social distancing and other basic public health measures.
“In many parts of the world, the pandemic looks like it’s over…but at the end of the day, (these measures) are ultimately what prevent transmission of the virus,” she said.
“If countries are at the point where they think these things aren’t important anymore, because, for example, they’ve developed such population immunity, then why 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 scaremongering at worst.
“I see no compelling reason to justify this decision,” said Huang, of the Council on Foreign Relations. “So far, we have no evidence indicating whether such variants are indeed emerging in mainland China.”
“I can understand the concerns because of the lack of transparency, because of the lack of sharing of genomic sequencing,” he added. “But even with a ban, we can’t prevent the spread of the virus. And assuming there are indeed new variants emerging in mainland China, we would just delay the spread, we’re not going to prevent the virus from spreading. spread to other parts of the world.”
Grepin echoed that point, saying, “In reality, we don’t have the scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of these measures in practice.”
If an infectious variant emerges, it will likely enter the United States via other countries anyway, she said, noting that restrictions “did very little” when Omicron emerged in the fall. last.
Pre-departure testing – which the United States requires – is also only somewhat effective, as many new variants have a short incubation period, which means “there will still be cases that occur.” ‘will come out of it,’ she added.
Political pressure and xenophobia
There are several reasons why countries may impose these restrictions despite their questionable use, Grepin said – one being fears that Chinese Covid patients will flee elsewhere for treatment with home hospitals completely overwhelmed.
But, she added, that is entirely unlikely. The volume of travel from China is still extremely low, partly due to the limited number of flights. And at the rate Covid is spreading, it would pose a logistical challenge for infected patients to immediately obtain visas and book flights abroad.
Instead, the recent wave of restrictions likely reflects “political pressure (on authorities) to make it look like they are doing something”, she said. “We see one country doing it and then other countries following suit.”
Medical staff treat patients at a hospital in Jiangsu, China on December 28.
CFOTO/Future Publishing/Getty Images
Experts also warn that singling out China could increase the risk of greater anti-Chinese racism, as seen at the start of the pandemic when Asians around the world faced discrimination and crimes. violent haters.
China isn’t the only place to see an increase in cases, Huang said. “I don’t see why China should be treated differently from other countries like Australia, for example, which is swimming in Covid,” he added.
The United States is likely importing tens of thousands of cases from around the world even now, Grepin said, adding that 1-3% of all international travelers have Covid – so there is no point in specifically targeting Covid coming from one country. .
“We have seen this throughout the pandemic – when certain measures are targeted at people coming from a particular place, it reinforces stereotypes or beliefs that viruses come from certain parts of the world… This is not ‘just isn’t true,’ she said.
Which countries are welcoming Chinese travelers back?
On the other hand, many countries have opened their doors as a sign of welcome.
The tourist services and the embassies of France, Thailand, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Austria and Switzerland have all posted messages on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, inviting Chinese tourists.
“Chinese friends, France welcomes you with open arms!” wrote the French Embassy on Weibo. Thailand’s National Tourism Administration wrote, “Thailand has been waiting for you for three years!”
Many Weibo users celebrated their newfound freedom to travel, with the hashtag “Where to travel abroad next year” garnering nearly 80 million views.
China alone contributed 51% of travel and tourism GDP in the Asia-Pacific region in 2018, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. And Chinese travelers typically accounted for 30% of all arrivals to Thailand.
CNN’s Cheng Cheng, Pierre Meilhan, Kevin Liptak, Valentina Di Donato, Eric Cheung, Emi Jozuka and CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed reporting.