Workers wearing protective masks and suits help Chinese travellers leaving the arrival hall of Rome, on Friday. AFP
Despite its hospitals and morgues being overwhelmed — and international concern over the low official figures on infections and deaths there — China insisted on Friday that it had been transparent in sharing its COVID-19 data.
On Wednesday, a senior US health official said Beijing had provided only limited data to global databases about variants circulating in China, and its testing and reporting on new cases had diminished.
On Thursday, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also urged China to be more forthcoming on the pandemic. It was "understandable" that some countries had introduced restrictions in response to its COVID-19 surge, he said. But on Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin insisted: "Since the outbreak of the epidemic, China has been sharing relevant information and data with the international community, including WHO, in an open and transparent manner.
"We shared the sequence of the new coronavirus at the first instance, thus making important contributions to the development of relevant vaccines (and) drugs in other countries."
Nevertheless, Spain, South Korea and Israel on Friday became the latest countries to impose mandatory coronavirus tests on visitors from China.
They join Italy, Japan, India, Malaysia, Taiwan and the United States in requiring negative Covid tests for all travellers from mainland China, in a bid to avoid importing new variants from the Asian giant.
Different European approaches
In Beijing, Wang argued that health experts in several countries had decided there was no need to impose entry restrictions on travellers from China.
The European Union's infectious disease agency (ECDC) said on Thursday such restrictions were not warranted for the moment, due to the high levels of immunity in the EU and European Economic Area.
Germany seemed to take that on board Friday, saying it did not currently see the need to impose routine tests on arrivals from China But Health Minister Karl LauterBach did argue for a coordinated EU-wide system to monitor variants across European airports. "We need a European solution," he said.
A coordinated approach would make it easier to detect new variants of the coronavirus quickly and take appropriate measures, he added.
And while routine tests were "not yet necessary" for arrivals from China, that could change given that data from China could not be reliably obtained.
Justifying the restrictions Spain had decided to impose, Health Minister Carolina Darias said: "A major concern lies in the possibility of new variants appearing in China that have not been controlled.
"Given the health situation in that country, we know the importance of acting with coordination, but also the importance of acting quickly," she added.
A national disease control body in China said there were about 5,500 new local cases and one death on Friday. With the end of mass testing however and the narrowing of criteria for what counts as a Covid fatality, those numbers are no longer believed to reflect reality.
Jiao Yahui, from China's National Health Commission (NHC), insisted on Thursday Beijing had always published data "on COVID-19 deaths and severe cases in the spirit of openness and transparency."
The NHC said last week it would no longer release an official daily Covid death toll. But health risk analysis firm Airfinity said it currently estimates 9,000 daily deaths and 1.8 million infections per day in China, and it expects 1.7 million fatalities across the country by the end of April 2023.
The Britain-based research firm said its model was based on data from China's regional provinces before changes to reporting infections were implemented, combined with case growth rates from other former zero-Covid countries when they lifted restrictions.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the "difficult decision” was prompted by rising infection rates in Portugal and worries about new strains of the virus that could prove resistant to vaccines. EasyJet slammed UK change to Portuguese travel as "huge blow."
The move, announced by the US Department of Transportation, penalises China after Beijing failed to comply with an existing agreement on flights between the world's two largest economies.
The move is likely to be greeted with joy from Chinese citizens and diaspora unable to return and see relatives for much of the pandemic.
Taipei’s downtown Songshan airport on Thursday began offering travellers the chance to do just that, with some 60 people eager to get going, albeit to nowhere. Around 7,000 people applied to take part, the winners chosen by random.
The company said in a statement that it had declared "a state of emergency following an oil spill in the west of the country," noting that "there were no injuries resulting from the leak and that production operations were not affected."
Chinese President Xi Jinping met his "dear friend" Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday, seeking both to deepen economic ties with an ally he sees as a useful counterweight to the West and to promote Beijing's role as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine.
Al Neyadi said, “In space as on Earth... the day does not start without coffee… ☕️ This is how I started my first morning on board the International Space Station... I am very excited to meet you in direct contact tomorrow. I wish you a good day!”