China eases anti-COVID measures after protests

BEIJING (AP) — China reversed rules to isolate people with COVID-19 and dropped virus testing requirements for some public places on Wednesday, a dramatic change in a strategy that has locked millions in their homes and protests and Demands for President Xi Jinping triggered resignation.

China has enforced some of the strictest curbs in the worlddisrupting global manufacturing and trade and the lives of ordinary Chinese, while many nations moved to live with the virus.

The latest announcement by the National Health Commission is the second relaxation of rules after a Nov. 11 amendment that raised hopes that the Communist Party would abandon its “zero-COVID” strategy. However, experts warn that it will be mid-2023 or later before restrictions can be fully lifted as millions of elderly people still need to be vaccinated.

China’s low infection rates also mean few people have developed natural immunity, a factor that could derail reopening plans if cases rise and authorities are forced to reintroduce restrictions.

The relaxation comes in line with promises to reduce the human cost of “zero-COVID,” including changes announced ahead of the protests that included shorter quarantines for travelers from abroad. The latest moves have been made public in a possible attempt to quell public anger – but it was unclear if they were in response to the protests.

Under the new rules, people with mild cases are allowed to isolate themselves at home for the first time instead of going to quarantine centers that are sometimes overcrowded or unsanitary. This addresses a major irritation that triggered the outburst.

Public entities, with the exception of “special places” like schools, hospitals and care homes, will no longer require visitors to create a “health code” on a smartphone app that tracks their virus tests and whether they’ve been in areas deemed special at risk of infection, the government said.

Local officials must “take strict and detailed measures to protect people’s life, safety and health” while “minimizing the impact of the epidemic on economic and social development,” the statement said.

The latest changes are “small steps” in a gradual process to end restrictions, Liang Wannian, a member of an expert group advising the National Health Commission, said at a news conference.

“We will look at it, study it and judge it and analyze it again,” said Liang, one of China’s best-known anti-epidemic experts.

The government’s goal is “to return to the pre-epidemic state, but achieving the goal must be conditional,” Liang said.

China’s restrictions have helped keep case numbers low, but public frustration is mounting as millions are repeatedly confined at home for uncertain periods, schools close abruptly and economic growth slows.

The changes were introduced despite a renewed spike in infections that began in October. On Wednesday, the government reported 25,231 new cases, including 20,912 with no symptoms.

The Xi government has upheld “zero-COVID” as evidence of the superiority of the Chinese system compared to the United States and Western countries. China’s official death toll since the pandemic began is 5,235 compared to the US’s 1.1 million.

There was no indication that Beijing was dropping its goal of stamping out transmission of the virus, which has killed at least 6.6 million people worldwide.

China is the latest major country still trying to do so, while the United States and other governments have eased travel and other restrictions.

A deputy prime minister, Sun Chunlan, said last week that the latest variants are less likely to cause disease. That suggested the government might be preparing to declare COVID-19 a less severe disease, which could result in a less drastic response, but there was no confirmation of that.

The government last week announced a campaign to vaccinate the elderly, which health experts said must be done before China can end restrictions on overseas visitors. They say the ruling party also needs to build up China’s hospital system to deal with a potential spike in cases.

Rules have been retained warning that homes and offices could be sealed if infections are detected. Complaints that families have been locked up for weeks and have unsafe access to food and medicine have been a major reason for the protests.

The ruling party switched earlier this year to suspending access to neighborhoods or districts where infections were detected, rather than isolating entire cities.

On Wednesday, the government said the scope of closures would be narrowed even further to individual floors or buildings rather than neighborhoods.

It said schools in communities must return to in-person instruction without outbreaks.

This appeared to be in response to complaints that local leaders, who face losing their jobs in the event of outbreaks, are imposing destructive closures that may be unnecessary and exceed limits allowed by the central government.

The demonstrations in at least eight major cities and on dozens of university campuses were the most widespread display of public dissent in decades. In Shanghai, some protesters chanted politically explosive demands for the resignation of Xi, China’s most influential figure in decades.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *