China's President Xi Jinping holds grave fears for the welfare of millions who are likely to be infected with Covid-19 in the coming weeks.
In a rare display of public concern amid the pandemic, Xi expressed his worry over the health of older, rural residents who will be exposed to the virus during the Lunar New Year holidays, potentially sending the nation's death toll spiralling.
The holiday is renowned for its sheer volume of travel where residents head home to their families. An estimated two billion trips are expected during the Spring Festival celebrations in what is the biggest travel event in the world.
China's health system has been an area of concern as the country's Covid wave surged in the wake of Beijing walking away from its divisive zero-Covid strategy. Health resources in China's regional areas are even weaker.
"I am most worried about the rural areas and farmers. Medical facilities are relatively weak in rural areas, thus prevention is difficult and the task is arduous," Xi said in a message broadcast on state TV.
"China's Covid prevention and control is still in a time of stress."
Elderly residents at serious risk
Epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett at Deakin University previously told Yahoo News Australia there are concerns over how many older Chinese residents are fully vaccinated, as well as the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines.
State media reported health authorities have ramped up efforts to vaccinate elderly residents, heading door to door in villages and rural settings to convince the unvaccinated to get the jab. Medicines and resources have been sent to regions in dire need of support.
China's Covid data has been questioned by the West, with suspicion the country's Covid death toll is far lower than the reality. The surge in activity at funeral homes paints a far different picture to that of the relatively low death toll the country is reporting. Western experts have suggested the death toll could reach several million in 2023.
A recent study from Peking University suggested 900 million residents had so far contracted the virus, 64 per cent of its 1.4 billion population.
While there is concern over the vulnerable, many travellers were excited to see family after what has been a tough three years under strict restrictions.
"I used to be a little worried (about Covid-19)... Now it doesn't matter anymore. Now it's okay if you get infected. You'll just be sick for two days only," one person told Reuters at a Shanghai train station.
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