- Biggest easing of curbs since the pandemic began
- Cities are urging citizens to remain vigilant
- Analysts say China is ill-prepared in cases for a big surge
BEIJING, Dec 8 (Reuters) – As many Chinese embraced new-found freedoms on Thursday after the country dropped key parts of its strict zero-COVID regime, some cities warned residents to remain vigilant against a virus that has so far was largely held back in chess.
Three years into the pandemic, many in China had been waiting for Beijing to align its stringent virus prevention measures with the rest of the world, which has largely opened up to living with the disease.
Those frustrations boiled over into widespread protests last month, the biggest public discontent since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
Without saying it was in response to the protests, some cities and regions began easing COVID controls, heralding a nationwide easing of rules unveiled by the National Health Commission on Wednesday.
The NHC said infected people with mild symptoms can now be quarantined at home and it removes the need for mobile app health testing and screening for a variety of activities, including travel across the country.
Domestic ticket sales to tourist and leisure spots have skyrocketed, according to the state press, while some people took to social media to reveal they had tested positive for the virus – something that had previously been heavily stigmatized in China.
Others expressed caution.
“I know COVID isn’t that ‘terrible’ now, but it’s still contagious and will hurt,” read a post on the Weibo platform. “The fear that is brought into our hearts cannot be easily dissipated.”
“Too many positives!” said another Weibo user.
China reported 21,439 new local COVID-19 infections on Dec. 7, down slightly from the previous day and below a peak of 40,052 cases on Nov. 27. Cases have been declining lately as authorities across the country dropped testing requirements.
Various multimillion-dollar projects to build testing labs across the country, from Shandong province in the east to Sichuan in the southwest, have been halted as China has reduced the need for testing, the Shanghai government-backed news agency The Paper reported.
Recent announcements made no mention of China’s “zero-COVID” policy, raising suspicions that the term is becoming obsolete as the government gradually brings the country into a state of living with the virus.
Senior officials have also softened their tone on the dangers posed by the virus, and on Thursday the NHC changed the official Chinese name of the virus from novel coronavirus pneumonia to just novel coronavirus in its latest guidance posted on its website .
But as the new, looser controls rolled in, some cities urged residents to remain vigilant.
“The general public should maintain a good awareness of personal protection and be the first responsible person for their own health,” said Zhengzhou, the central city where the world’s largest iPhone factory is located, in a message to residents.
It urged residents to wear masks, maintain social distancing, see a doctor for fever and other COVID symptoms, and get vaccinated, especially the elderly.
Some analysts and medical experts say China is ill-prepared for a large surge in infections, due in part to low vaccination rates among vulnerable elderly and its fragile health system.
“It (China) may have to pay for its procrastination to adopt a ‘living with COVID’ approach,” analysts at Nomura said in a note Thursday.
Infection rates in China are only about 0.13%, “far from the level needed for herd immunity,” Nomura said.
Feng Zijian, a former official at the China Center for Disease Control, told China Youth Daily that up to 60% of China’s population could be infected in the first major wave before stabilization.
“Ultimately, about 80 to 90 percent of people will be infected,” he said.
China’s current tally of 5,235 COVID-related deaths is a tiny fraction of its population of 1.4 billion and extremely low by global standards. Some experts have warned that the toll could rise to over 1.5 million if the exit is too hasty.
But despite the dangers, for many there is an acceptance that life must go on.
“It’s impossible to kill this virus completely, maybe you just live with it and hope it develops into flu,” said Yan, a 22-year-old unemployed Beijing resident who hoped further opening up of China’s economy would help him would help look for work.
Reporting by Bernard Orr, Ella Cao, Ryan Woo and the Beijing Newsroom and Brenda Goh in Shanghai; writing by John Geddie; Edited by Simon Cameron Moore
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.