China eases coronavirus restrictions, causing confusion and fear


Lockdown arrived in Shijiazhuang without warning this month. At the time, the northern Chinese city only had a handful of Covid cases. Then 12 days later – just as abruptly, although infections continued to rise – the restrictions were lifted.

The sudden reversal left local residents unsure how to react. Some celebrated the reopening of bars, restaurants and cinemas. Others have vowed to stay home and stockpiled traditional flu medicines.

The response to China’s most significant easing of coronavirus controls has been a jumble of conflicting priorities and public sentiment since Beijing announced the changes a week ago. City governments are again faced with demands that they not respond in a way that disrupts daily life. At the same time, months of official warnings of disastrous consequences should the virus run wild have many people fearing the country’s rising case numbers.

A 30-year-old employee at a state-owned company in Shijiazhuang was surprised that her “conservative and cautious” hometown had suddenly become an experiment in the country’s attempt to escape its “zero-Covid” swamp.

“Why suddenly have courage?” she asked, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “I can’t help but feel like we’re guinea pigs.”

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China on Friday reported that 25,353 people tested positive the previous day, bringing the total number of symptomatic cases to 281,793. While these numbers are small compared to daily numbers in many countries, they are among the highest China has recorded during the pandemic. No deaths were reported in the recent outbreak, but the contrast with months of near-zero infections remains shocking.

Mounting frustrations since the government’s announcement have turned chaotic at times. In the southern city of Guangzhou, protests escalated into violent clashes with police on Monday after Haizhu District extended the lockdown, even as the rest of the city eased restrictions.

This followed the Guangzhou government’s decision in early November to force out-of-town workers to leave the city. After returning from quarantine centers, many were denied entry to their homes. Some accused the authorities of negligence and discrimination against non-residents Residency permit.

The restaurant She Qianfeng runs was temporarily closed after restaurant eating was banned again, and he has since joined a group of volunteers distributing food and other relief supplies. “Residents were unhappy because they think the government was ill-prepared and didn’t take good care of them,” said She, who is from Hubei in central China. Tensions flared up. “Some became overly emotional and escalated the conflict. … Many people feared being quarantined more than anything.”

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Much of the uncertainty stems from the confused and even conflicting messages from officials. Two weeks ago, financial markets rose exuberantly on rumors of an impending nationwide easing of coronavirus restrictions. Health officials then denied any postponement, promising “unwavering” adherence to the long-standing zero-Covid policy. Days later, the government released its 20-point slow easing plan Quarantine and Testing Requirements.

Quarantine times have been reduced from 10 to 8 days with 5 days in central quarantine and three at home. Contacts of contact persons of infected people no longer have to go to central quarantine facilities. International flight routes will not be suspended if too many people test positive on arrival. At least eight cities, including Shanghai, dropped requirements for mass testing.

Official media have since been on a propaganda blitz to combat public discontent. The Chinese Communist Party newspaper, People’s Daily, on Friday launched a question-and-answer column focused solely on the government’s plan. The state news agency Xinhua warned that “just lockdown and just open” are equally unacceptable.

For the relevant local officials Implementing control measures has made an already extremely difficult task even more difficult. Officially, the approach known as “Dynamic Zero Covid” remains in place. The aim is still to identify cases at an early stage and block them immediately Transmission by removing infected individuals from the general population. But the updated policy means increasing pressure to do so without disrupting daily life.

The Nov. 11 announcement threatened punishment for excessive “one-size-fits-all” or other forms of arbitrary coronavirus restrictions that could cost the economy and society. However, that usually means “a slap on the wrist, so the overriding priority is still Covid control,” said Hongshen Zhu, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who researches the tradeoffs caused by China’s coronavirus policies.

The growing outbreak and weakening control measures have sparked debate over whether China’s zero-Covid strategy is now in name only. The government vehemently denies this. At a press conference last weekend National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng stressed that the new measures are about policy streamlining, not opening up or “laying down”.

Rather than trying to live with the virus like most of the world is doing, Beijing wants a “not only but also” approach that values ​​normal life and intervention during outbreaks equally, wrote Zichen Wang, author of the Pekingnology newsletters and staff at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank.

Health officials claim that abandoning the zero-Covid policy entirely would be disastrous for vulnerable populations. They point to Hong Kong, where a sudden surge in infections combined with a slow rollout of vaccinations led to the world’s highest death toll in March.

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Vaccination rates among China’s elderly, which were not initially prioritized when vaccinations were rolled out in the country, have remained stubbornly low. Only about two-thirds of people over 80 have received double the dose needed for basic immunity. Less than half received a refresher.

Since the pandemic’s early days, critics of government policies have fretted over the social and economic consequences of giving too much power to local officials during the lockdown. They described a “second-order disaster” stemming from both the response to the pandemic and the virus itself.

A WeChat blog published on Monday advocated jail time as punishment for officials who fail in their duty to maintain normal life and stop outbreaks. Current stimulus only addresses the latter, she argued: failing to avert an outbreak means Bureaucrats are losing their jobs, but there is no comparable accountability for ineffective actions who sacrifice people’s livelihoods, property and fundamental freedoms in the name of fighting the virus.

Until this imbalance is resolved, commentator Guanxiangtai concluded, “no matter how many meetings are held or official documents are released, we will not be able to solve excessive prevention.”

A father posted on social media on Wednesday that his baby daughter has died after she was denied immediate medical care for lacking a negative coronavirus test. The online outcry over the tragedy was largely directed at local officials, but some people also blamed central government policies. A day later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that children under the age of 3 are exempt from testing requirements.

“I’ve seen too many messages like this in the last three years,” read a comment on Weibo, a Twitter-like site. “Isn’t it the duty of your hospitals to save lives and heal the sick? How many people will die in vain before this farce ends?”

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