After days of unprecedented protests against three years of stringent COVID-19 restrictions, Chinese authorities have this week signalled a pathway towards gradually easing some of the measures and a change in policy.
The top official in charge of the pandemic policy, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, in a meeting held on Wednesday with scientists of the National Health Commission and with frontline health workers, said the country’s battle against the pandemic was now facing “a new situation” with the “decreased pathogenicity” of the Omicron variant.
Her comments marked the first instance of any senior Chinese official saying so, and a stark contrast from continued official messaging describing COVID-19 as a life-threatening disease, which was a justification for continuing the zero-COVID policy.
The government also announced plans this week to step up vaccinations of the large number of vulnerable elderly citizens, the other commonly cited reason for continuing the policy which calls for lockdowns, mass testing and quarantining of positive cases and close contacts.
Ms. Sun said “the country is facing a new situation and new tasks in epidemic prevention and control as the pathogenicity of the Omicron virus weakens, more people are vaccinated and experience in containing the virus is accumulated,” the official Xinhua news agency quoted her as saying.
She “urged efforts to further optimise the COVID-19 response, improve diagnosis, testing, treatment and quarantine measures, strengthen immunisation of the whole population, particularly the elderly, and step up the preparation of medications and other medical resources.”
This also marked a rare high-profile call for boosting vaccination, which had taken a back seat with healthcare resources largely devoted to mass testing and lockdowns.
Health experts have said vaccinating the elderly will be a key requirement for opening up. Chinese media outlet Caixin reported on Wednesday authorities plan to vaccinate as much as 90% of the 30 million above-80 population with at least one dose by the end of January, up from the current 76%. Only 40% of this age group, however, has completed the three doses of Chinese vaccines shown to be required to prevent hospitalisation and death, according to data from Hong Kong.
In a meeting with frontline health workers, Ms. Sun said China possessed adequate drugs for treatment. The zero-COVID policy, which was backed by Chinese President Xi Jinping as recently as October and framed as one of the key legacies of his second term, is likely to be eased only gradually, over coming months, in the view of most observers.
A sudden opening, authorities fear, will lead to mass deaths of the unvaccinated elderly. Abandoning zero-COVID, for the Communist Party, is also politically untenable because it has been framed as one of Mr. Xi’s successes and constantly highlighted as a contrast from the West, which saw mass COVID deaths.
Pressure has, however, grown to ease the policy after widespread protests in many Chinese cities last weekend, calling for an end to lockdowns.