On one of China's busiest travel days in years, people crammed into trains and buses across the country on Friday, fueling fears of additional outbreaks of the deadly COVID-19 virus that officials say has reached its peak.
In remarks broadcast by state media late Thursday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan described the virus as "relatively low". At the same time, health officials reported a drop in COVID patients hospitalized and in critical condition.
Since Beijing abandoned rigorous COVID regulations and mass testing a month ago, there are widespread suspicions about China's official story of an outbreak that has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes.
This policy reversal, which followed historic protests against the government's stringent anti-virus restrictions, unleashed COVID on a population of 1.4 billion that had been mainly protected from the disease since its emergence in late 2019 in the city of Wuhan.
Airfinity, a British health data organization, predicts that COVID mortality might reach 36,000 per day within the next week. Some health experts estimate that more than one million people will die from the disease in China this year.
"Recently, the overall pandemic in the country is at a relatively low level," Sun was quoted by the state-run news outlet Xinhua.
"The number of critical patients at hospitals is decreasing steadily, though the rescue mission is still heavy."
Her remarks were made on the eve of one of the busiest travel days in China since the pandemic outbreak in late 2019. Millions of city-dwellers are preparing to travel to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins on Saturday.
Between January 7 and February 15, the Chinese government expects that more than 2 billion journeys will occur.
On Friday, eager commuters laden with bags and gift boxes boarded trains bound for long-awaited family reunions.
"Everyone is anxious to return home. After all, it has been so long since we've seen our family, "Li, 30, told Reuters at the Beijing West train station.
For others, however, the holiday is a remembrance of lost family members.
A writer from Shanghai, Gu Bei, stated on the social media platform Weibo that she had been waiting over two weeks to cremate her mother and that the funeral home could not provide a date for the event.
This week, China's internet regulator announced that it would suppress any "false information" concerning the spread of the virus that could dampen Lunar New Year celebrations.
"I've heard that no dark and gloomy language is permitted during the new year. Allow me to mourn my mum now, "Gu stated in her post that her mother's cause of death was not specified.
Documents reveal that spending by funeral houses on equipment such as body bags and cremation furnaces has increased in numerous provinces, one of the indicators of COVID's lethality.
This week, President Xi Jinping stated that he was concerned about an influx of travellers to rural areas with weak medical systems and that protecting the elderly, many of whom are not fully immunized, was a key priority.
According to a Thursday report by the World Health Organization, China reported the most significant number of COVID-related hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic in the week ending January 15.
The number of hospitalizations increased by 70% from the previous week to 63,307, according to figures supplied to the WHO by Beijing.
However, health officials stated during a news conference on Thursday that the number of COVID patients presenting to hospitals had peaked, with more than 40 per cent fewer persons being treated for critical situations on January 17 than on January 5.
China said approximately 60,000 COVID patients died in hospitals between December 8 and January 12. However, this number does not include people who passed away at home, and some physicians have stated that they are discouraged from listing COVID on death certificates.
While China's reopening has been chaotic, investors are optimistic that it will help revitalize its $17 trillion economy, placing bets that have pushed Chinese stocks and the yuan to multi-month highs.
The reopening of China's economy is widely anticipated to unleash a rush of pent-up demand, Nomura analysts wrote in a note.
They emphasized that a decline in household wealth, an increase in youth unemployment, and a hangover from years of lockdowns and travel restrictions could dampen the recovery.
While foreign planes are in limited supply, Chinese visitors, a global retail and tourism industry's pillar, are beginning to travel once more.
Malls from Macau to Bangkok use red lantern displays and extraordinary dances to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, along with significant discounts, to attract customers.
According to Bain consultancy projections, Chinese travel spending increased to $255 billion in 2019, representing 33% of worldwide expenditure on personal luxury items.