HONG KONG — China has dropped many of its quarantine and testing requirements and curtailed the powers of local officials to shut down entire city blocks, while the country’s leadership accelerates plans to dismantle zero-Covid controls following nationwide protests.
Though widely predicted, Beijing’s retreat from its costly and increasingly unpopular pandemic regime has been faster than expected. After years of being told Covid posed a deadly threat, China’s people were unprepared for a sudden policy shift, especially as infections have surged to record highs with outbreaks across the country.
The new rules announced by the State Council on Wednesday are in response to the public’s “strong reaction” to officials’ failure to properly implement previous policies aimed at reducing the burden of pandemic controls on people’s lives, Li Bin said. the deputy director of China’s National Health Commission. Mr Li’s statement is the authorities’ most direct admission that they are lifting Covid controls in response to recent protests, which began in Zhengzhou’s iPhone manufacturing hub before spreading to many other major cities in late November.
While the zero-Covid approach had widespread support in China over the past year, that has waned with the prospect of a fourth year of lockdowns, restrictions on movement and seemingly endless virus testing. With Beijing already looking for a way to exit zero Covid, the protests became a way to justify the pivot, said Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
The sweeping new measures will allow Covid patients with mild or no symptoms and their close contacts to self-isolate at home rather than being placed in government quarantine facilities. Officials will no longer be allowed to designate entire districts as “high-risk zones”, but the homes or buildings where infections are found will remain under lockdown.
Most requirements for virus testing and health QR code scanning upon entering premises will be removed, with the exception of locations such as nursing homes, kindergartens or schools. Domestic travelers no longer need to present a negative virus test or have their health codes checked upon arrival in another province. The new rules also prohibit officers from arbitrarily cordoning off neighborhoods and closing businesses, and restricting residents’ ability to go about their daily lives.
When restrictions are lifted, China will step up efforts to vaccinate more people aged 60 or over by providing more temporary and mobile vaccination stations for the elderly, the State Council guideline said. Low vaccination rates among China’s large elderly population have been repeatedly cited as an obstacle to lifting restrictions.
Wednesday’s announcement is an apparent attempt to stem protests over the overzealous implementation of Covid rules, which in some cases had put people’s lives at risk and sparked public anger online and on the streets. Aside from lifting current restrictions, the directive also specifically prohibits hospitals from turning away patients without a negative virus test result when they need urgent treatment and prohibits blocking emergency exits on Covid grounds.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other senior officials have repeatedly stressed the need to uphold the zero-Covid policy and criticized the West’s approach to living with the virus as a disregard for life. But the official tune began to change last month after signs of economic and supply chain disruption resurfaced and protests erupted in dozens of major cities. Covid-related disruptions at the world’s largest iPhone assembly plant prompted Apple Inc. to question whether it can still rely on China as its largest manufacturing base.
Protests erupted in Xinjiang late last month when officials said 10 people had died in a fire at a gated block of flats. Videos posted by state media showed fire engines waiting while Covid-related roadblocks were removed. Angry residents took to the streets to demonstrate, demanding an end to lockdowns and other measures. A wave of protests unseen in China’s tightly controlled society in decades soon spread across the country, including Beijing and Shanghai.
write to Selina Cheng at [email protected]
Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8