Passengers laden with luggage flocked to train stations and airports in China’s megacities on Monday, heading home for a holiday that health experts say could intensify a Covid-19 outbreak that has claimed thousands of lives.

After three years of strict and stifling anti-virus controls, China abruptly abandoned its zero-Covid policy in early December, letting the virus spread freely among its population of 1.4 billion.

Authorities said on Saturday that nearly 60,000 people with covid had died in hospitals between December 8 and January 12, a large increase from previous figures that had been criticized by the World Health Organization for not reflecting the pandemic. scale and severity of the outbreak.

Even those numbers likely excluded many people dying at home, especially in rural areas with weaker medical systems, one health expert said. Several experts forecast that more than 1 million people in China will die from the disease this year.

Ahead of the Lunar New Year festivities, also known as the Spring Festival, which officially kicks off on January 21, state media was awash with stories of rural hospitals and clinics bolstering their supplies of medicines and equipment.

“The peak of covid infection in our village has passed, but the spring festival is approaching and there are still villagers, especially the elderly, at risk of secondary infection,” a doctor from Shaanxi province said in a regional news article. outlet Red Star News.

“If antivirals and other drugs were more abundant, I would have more confidence.”

In addition to fever medicine and oxygen supplies, China’s National Health Commission has said it will equip each village clinic with pulse oximeters, devices commonly worn on the fingertips during the pandemic to check oxygen levels rapidly.

Beijing’s main railway station has been packed with passengers leaving the capital in recent days, according to witnesses.

In China’s most populous city, Shanghai, temporary night trains have been added to meet the demand of travelers heading to the eastern province of Anhui, China’s official state news agency Xinhua reported.

Meanwhile, daily arrivals at the Macau gaming center topped 55,000 on Saturday, the highest daily arrivals since the pandemic began.

In Hong Kong, the government has said it would increase the number of people who can pass through designated land border checkpoints into the mainland to 65,000 people a day from 50,000 between January 18 and 21.

China’s Ministry of Transport has said it expects more than 2 billion trips in the weeks around the holidays.

The revival of travel in China has raised expectations of a rebound in the world’s second-largest economy, which is suffering its lowest growth rates in nearly half a century.

Those hopes helped buoy Asian stock markets on Monday, adding gains of 4.2% last week.

China’s blue chip index rose 0.6% on Monday, while global oil prices have also been supported by expectations of a recovery in demand from China, the world’s top importer.

Chinese data on economic growth, retail sales and industrial production due this week are sure to be disappointing, but markets will likely look beyond how China’s reopening could boost global growth, analysts say.