Chinese students return home amid fears of the spread of COVID-19

BEIJING (AP) — Some Chinese universities say they will allow students to finish the semester from home in hopes of reducing the potential for a major COVID-19 outbreak during January’s Lunar New Year travel rush.

It wasn’t clear how many schools were participating, but universities in Shanghai and nearby cities said students have the option of returning home earlier or staying on campus and taking tests every 48 hours. Chinese New Year, which falls on January 22, is traditionally China’s busiest travel season.

Universities often had bans for the last three years, which has occasionally led to clashes between authorities and students who have been cooped up on campus or even in their dormitories.

With so many people staying at home, the streets of downtown Beijing were eerily quiet on Tuesday, giving the feeling of a voluntary lockdown. Small lines formed outside fever clinics – which recently went from 94 to 303 – and inside pharmacies, where cold and flu medicines are harder to find.

Restaurants have mostly been closed or empty as many businesses struggle to find enough staff who have not contracted the infection. Sanlitun, one of Beijing’s most popular shopping districts, was deserted despite its anti-COVID fences being torn down in recent days.

Tuesday’s announcements came as China began to ease its strict “zero-COVID” policyallowing people with mild symptoms to stay at home instead of being sent to a quarantine center, among other changes that followed widespread protests.

As of Tuesday, China stopped tracking some trips, potentially reducing the likelihood of people being forced into quarantine to visit COVID-19 hotspots. Despite this, China’s international borders remain largely closed and it has not been announced when restrictions on inbound travelers and Chinese wishing to travel abroad will be eased.

The move follows the government’s dramatic announcement last week that it was ending many of the strictest measuresafter three years of enforcing some of the toughest virus restrictions in the world.

Last month there were protests against the restrictions in Beijing and several other cities turned into calls for the resignation of leader Xi Jinping and the Communist Party – a level of public dissent not seen in decades.

While the easing has met with relief, it has also raised concerns about a new wave of infections potentially overwhelming health resources in some areas.

Despite a push to increase immunizations among the elderly, two vaccination delivery centers set up in Beijing were empty except for medical staff. Despite fears of a larger outbreak, there has been little sign of an increase in patient numbers.

At the Beixinqiao District Vaccination Center, 10 nurses stood in an otherwise empty auditorium, waiting to administer vaccinations. The nurses declined interviews, saying they needed official approval.

“With the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus spreading around the world, our country is under increasing pressure and the situation of disease prevention is serious and complicated,” reads a sign in front of the office.

“The whole world agrees that vaccination is the most effective way to fight the epidemic. … Please, old friends, get vaccinated as soon and as early as possible!”

While world-class cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have invested heavily in their medical systems, less developed cities and the vast rural hinterland have far fewer resources and will likely make the difference in whether China is overwhelmed.

Many mainland Chinese residents have taken to ordering medicines from pharmacies in Hong Kong, where many restrictions have already been eased.

The government of the semi-autonomous southern city took a further step on Tuesday, saying it would lift restrictions on incoming travelers that currently prevent them from dining in restaurants or going to bars for the first three days.

It would also stop using its contact-tracing app, although vaccination requirements to enter venues such as restaurants remain. Those traveling from Hong Kong to mainland China and Macau are no longer required to take a PCR test at border checkpoints, although they still face multi-day quarantine on the mainland side. The new measures will come into effect on Wednesday.

According to the city’s health minister, Hong Kong will gradually reduce PCR testing, including mandatory screening notices for residential buildings, and faster test kits will be distributed in the community.

The easing of controls on the mainland means a sharp drop in mandatory testing, which is what compiles daily infection counts, but cases appear to be rising rapidly as many people test themselves at home and stay away from hospitals.

China reported 7,451 new infections Monday, bringing the country’s total to 372,763 — more than double the Oct. 1 figure. It has recorded 5,235 deaths – compared to 1.1 million in the United States.

The figures provided by the Chinese government have not been independently verified, and questions have been raised about whether the Communist Party has tried to minimize the number of cases and deaths.

The U.S. consulates in the northeast Chinese city of Shenyang and the central city of Wuhan will only offer emergency services “in response to the increased number of COVID-19 cases,” starting Tuesday, the foreign ministry said.

“Mission China is making every effort to ensure full consular services are available to U.S. citizens residing in the People’s Republic of China, but further disruption is possible,” said an email message, which included the initials for China’s official name People’s Republic of China were used.

The Xi government remains officially committed to halting virus transmission. However, recent moves suggest the party will tolerate more cases without quarantine or closures of travel or businesses as it implements its “zero-COVID” strategy.

Amid the unpredictable messages from Beijing, experts warn the party still has the option to reverse course and reintroduce restrictions if a large-scale outbreak occurs.

The policy change comes after protests erupted on November 25 after a fire killed 10 people in the northwest city of Urumqi. Many questioned whether the COVID-19 restrictions were hampering rescue efforts. Authorities denied the claims circulated online, but protesters expressed longstanding frustration in cities like Shanghai that have suffered severe lockdowns.

The party responded with a massive show of force and an unknown number of people were arrested at the protests or in the days that followed.

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Associated Press writers Zen Soo and Kanis Leung in Hong Kong and Dake Kang in Beijing contributed.

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