China moves closer to scrapping zero-Covid policy

The new measures limit the lockdown to individual apartment floors and buildings, rather than entire districts and neighbourhoods
Representative Image
Representative ImageReuters

BEIJING: After widespread protests, China on Wednesday rolled back major Covid-19 restrictions, moving a step closer to scrapping its dreaded zero-Covid policy, which drastically slowed down the economy and the movement of people across the country.

In light of the changing situation and the weakened virulence of the Omicron variant, the State Council or China's cabinet released the new measures to further optimise the response to COVID-19, an official announcement here said.

The new measures limit the lockdown to individual apartment floors and buildings, rather than entire districts and neighbourhoods.

The lockdowns enforced by officials in hazmat suits have become a symbol of repression and confinement of millions of people to their flats and apartment blocks in Chinese cities, including Shanghai and Beijing.

The sudden relaxation of the rules also sparked concerns that the daily virus cases which were averaging around 30,000 a day could increase rapidly as more people are expected to step out. China is currently in the thick of its winter season with temperatures dropping to below zero.

The relaxation of rigid measures under the zero-Covid policy comes in the backdrop of last month-end protests in many cities opposing the policy. Some protestors even called for President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party to step down.

Acknowledging the protests, Xi in talks with EU President Charles Michel early this month said that the demonstrations were carried by "mainly students" who are "frustrated" after three years of the pandemic.

Xi also reported to have said that the dominant Omicron strain is less lethal', but expressed concern about vaccinating the elderly, according to media reports.

In China, only 68.7 per cent of people over 60 have had three doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, official figures show. For those aged 80 and over, only 40.4 per cent have had a booster dose.

China so far used locally produced vaccines and has not pushed hard for vaccinating the elders, which experts say is due to a lack of confidence, while the world over elders have been vaccinated first for covid.

The nearly three years zero-Covid policy, which has gained ground since coronavirus first surfaced in Wuhan, has been strengthened periodically, isolating China from the rest of the world and restricting people's moments within the country, which had slowed the world's second-largest economy.

The new rules permit people who test covid positive to isolate at home rather than in overcrowded and unsanitary field hospitals, and schools.

Other major measures include reducing the frequency of nucleic acid testing, scrapping negative nucleic acid results and health code requirements for entering public places except for designated locations such as nursing homes, medical institutions and schools, as well as lifting COVID testing and health code requirements for domestic cross-regional travellers, it said.

The new measures detail that infected individuals with mild or no symptoms who meet requirements will be allowed to quarantine at home or choose collective quarantine, which has nation-wide resentment as people were dumped in makeshift hospitals with poor conditions.

Outside of designated locations which include nursing homes, welfare homes, medical institutions, childcare facilities, and primary and secondary schools, negative nucleic acid test results will no longer be required, and health codes will not be checked, the announcement published in the official media here said.

The nucleic acid test results and health codes will no longer be checked for domestic cross-regional travel, which may open up for Chinese to travel to other cities.

Similar checks for travellers upon arrival are also revoked.

Wang Guangfa, a respiratory expert from Peking University First Hospital, told the Global Times on Wednesday that the new measures are not a signal of full relaxation amid the ongoing COVID epidemic, but to allocate resources to the places most needed.

"Those new measures came up after thoroughly taking opinions from various sectors into account, reflecting that China's epidemic control work has been moving toward a more rational, scientific and targeted direction," Wang told the paper.

A major reason to adjust and optimise measures is that the virus has been mutating, which is different from the wild type with faster transmissibility. If we continue adopting the previous measures, we'll get limited gain with a much higher price, Wang said.

The announcement said the measures were aimed at accelerating lifting of restrictions in high risk areas and promoting vaccination rates among the elderly, in order to further strike a balance between anti-epidemic work and social and economic development, the official announcement here said.

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