Eyes COVID tests upon arrival as China cases surge ahead of PBBM trip
The Philippines is planning to impose strict travel requirements on Chinese nationals visiting the country as COVID-19 cases in China surge one week before President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is scheduled to go there on a state visit.
“I think we should be very cautious if they have many COVID-19 cases,” Transportation Secretary Jaime J. Bautista said in a mix of English and Filipino. “We should be careful about letting the Chinese into the country.”
He said the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) would work on the problem and said the Philippines may require RT-PCR testing upon arrival for travelers from China.
“In Hong Kong, they are open but they require an RT-PCR test. We can also do that,” he said. “Look at what other countries are doing. Other ASEAN countries are also cautious in accepting Chinese visitors.”
Department of Health (DOH) officer-in-charge Ma. Rosario Vergeire said the high COVID-19 count in an area should not keep people from doing their jobs.
She made this statement when asked if President Marcos should skip the state visit to Beijing due to the number of COVID-19 cases in China.
“We need to understand that we are currently living with the virus, so going to a place where the virus detection is high should not hamper us from doing our work,” Vergeire said in Filipino at a press conference.
“The trips of our President to different countries are important to our economy,” Vergeire said.
The surge in COVID-19 cases in China has been attributed to the Omicron subvariant BF.7.
In the Philippines, four cases of BF.7 have already been detected, but the DOH said this is not yet a cause for concern.
The BF.7, a sublineage of the BA.5, is believed to be more transmissible and better at evading immunity.
Earlier, a former pandemic adviser to the government, Dr. Tony Leachon, said the President’s trip to China was “a potential super spreader event.”
He said the President should secure the real status of COVID-19 cases in China, which has not been forthcoming with its pandemic data.
“The state visit is not a life and death situation. He has to confirm if he had a bivalent vaccine from his UN-NYC trip. It’s a potential super spreader event,” Leachon said.
In November, Malacañang announced that Marcos had accepted the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping for a state visit to China in January 2023.
Bautista said he welcomed the resumption of flights between the two countries, but said proper health protocols must be implemented.
Philippine Airlines (PAL) earlier announced that it is resuming flights between Manila and Xiamen, China by Jan. 13, 2023, almost three years after the service was halted due to COVID-related border restrictions.
Starting with one flight per week, operating every Friday, the PAL route to Xiamen will build up frequencies over time, in line with the easing of restrictions and applicable government authorizations.
During the pandemic, PAL operated a series of authorized regular charter flights to Nanjing (from July 2020 to September 2022), Hangzhou (August 2022 to September 2022), Tianjin (from July 2022 to August 2022) and Wuhan (from August 2022 to present), while scheduled services on the airline’s regular routes were suspended.
Before the start of the COVID-19 closures, PAL had previously served five cities in China, namely Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xiamen and Quanzhou (Jinjiang).
Other local airlines are also planning to resume flights to China by next year.
Based on a Reuters’ report, the provincial government of Zhejiang, a big industrial province near Shanghai with a population of 65.4 million, said it was battling about a million new daily COVID-19 infections, a number expected to double in the days ahead.
Health authorities in the southeastern Jiangxi province also said infections would hit an apex in early January, adding that there could be other peaks as people travel next month for Lunar New Year celebrations, state media reported.
They warned that the wave of infections would last three months and that about 80 percent of the province’s 45 million residents could get infected.
The city of Qingdao, in the eastern Shandong province, meanwhile estimated that up to 530,000 residents were being infected each day.
Beijing’s sudden pivot away from containing COVID-19 has caused jitters around the world, with the United States saying it may restrict travel from China following its decision to end mandatory quarantine for overseas arrivals.
China late Monday scrapped quarantine for inbound travelers from Jan. 8 onward, dismantling the last remaining piece of its stringent zero-COVID policy and ending some of the world’s harshest border restrictions.
The move was greeted with jubilation by Chinese citizens, who rushed to book international flights, triggering a surge in ticket prices.
But hospitals and crematoriums across China continue to be overwhelmed by an influx of mostly elderly people.
Reporters for Agence France-Presse saw dozens of mostly elderly COVID patients lying on gurneys in overflowing hospital emergency wards in Tianjin, 140 kilometers southwest of the capital Beijing Wednesday.
Medical staff are “pretty much all” expected to continue working despite testing positive for the virus, one doctor said.
Other countries have expressed concerns about the potential for new variants to emerge as China battles the world’s biggest surge in infections.
US officials said late Tuesday they were considering COVID entry restrictions on travelers from China, after countries including Japan and India introduced PCR testing on arrival for Chinese passengers.
“There are mounting concerns in the international community on the ongoing COVID-19 surges in China and the lack of transparent data, including viral genomic sequence data, being reported from the PRC,” the US officials said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
The United States is “considering taking similar steps” to countries such as Japan and Malaysia, they added.
Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China claims as its own, said Wednesday that it would also screen travelers from the mainland for the virus.
China’s loosening of measures effectively brought the curtain down on a zero-COVID regime of mass testing, lockdowns and long quarantines that has stalled its economy and triggered large-scale nationwide protests.
“Currently the development of China’s epidemic situation is overall predictable and under control,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Wednesday.
“Hyping, smearing and political manipulation with ulterior motives can’t stand the test of facts,” Wang added, calling Western media reporting on China’s COVID surge “completely biased.”
All passengers arriving in China have had to undergo mandatory centralized quarantine since March 2020. The period of isolation fell from three weeks to one week in June, and to five days last month. With AFP
The end of that rule in January will also see COVID-19 downgraded to a Class B infectious disease, allowing authorities to adopt looser controls.
Chinese immigration authorities said Tuesday they will resume issuing passports for tourism purposes from Jan. 8, after years of strict exit controls.
The winter surge comes ahead of major public holidays next month in which hundreds of millions of people are expected to travel to their hometowns to reunite with relatives.
Chinese authorities have said the scale of the outbreak is now “impossible” to track and narrowed the criteria for defining COVID deaths.
China’s Center for Disease Prevention and Control reported 5,231 new COVID cases and three deaths nationwide Wednesday — likely a drastic under-count since people are no longer required to declare infections to authorities.
Authorities are using data from online surveys, hospital visits, demand for fever medicines and emergency calls to “make up for shortcomings in (officially) reported figures,” disease control official Yin Wenwu said at a press briefing Tuesday.
With the country facing shortages of basic medicines, Beijing city authorities plan to distribute the oral COVID drug Paxlovid at local hospitals and community clinics. It remains extremely difficult to obtain for ordinary people.
The US-developed treatment was briefly available on e-commerce platform JD.com and delivery platform Meituan in the past few days before both ran out of stock.