China shifts away from ‘zero-COVID’ by announcing more easing measures

For the first time since the pandemic began, mild positive cases will now be allowed to isolate at home instead of being taken to central quarantine facilities.

December 07, 2022 08:34 pm | Updated December 08, 2022 08:02 pm IST - Beijing

A flower seller waits for customers on a street in the Jing’an district in Shanghai, on December 7, 2022.

A flower seller waits for customers on a street in the Jing’an district in Shanghai, on December 7, 2022. | Photo Credit: AFP

China’s government on Wednesday announced sweeping new measures to ease pandemic restrictions, marking a significant shift away from three years of a stringent “zero-COVID” policy.

For the first time since the pandemic began, mild positive cases will now be allowed to isolate at home instead of being taken to central quarantine facilities.

The mandatory mass testing regime, a key component of the zero-COVID policy that called for testing, tracing of all cases and close contacts, and quarantining in central facilities until cases in a region are brought back down to zero, has also been phased out along with lockdowns.

“Residential complexes should no longer be totally sealed off. Instead, high-risk and low-risk areas will be designated at building level, potentially affecting a single floor or even just one household,” said the announcement, which listed ten new easing measures.

The measures said “apart from nursing homes, medical institutions, primary and secondary schools, kindergartens and other special places, people will no longer be required to provide negative nucleic acid test results and undergo health code checks to access public venues or travel to other regions.”

In sum, the measures mean a fundamental shift away from “zero-COVID”, taking China’s battle against COVID-19 into uncharted waters.

Wednesday’s announcement sparked a range of emotions among residents in China’s capital and on social media, with a mix of relief over the ending of lockdowns, testing, and three years of restrictions that brought both economic and social tolls, as well as some anxiety as many confronted for the first time the prospect of contracting an illness that had been, until as recently as last month, framed as a life-threatening one.

As part of the move away from zero-COVID, state media is now emphasising the “decreasing pathogenicity” of the current Omicron variant. That messaging will, however, come up against three years of the public being told to fear the virus.

China’s zero-COVID playbook was broadly popular in 2020 and 2021, as it allowed China to avoid a major second wave and enjoy a degree of normalcy for two years albeit with largely closed borders. This meant schools staying open, busy factories, and booming domestic tourism while the rest of the world dealt with surging cases.

But more transmissible variants brought increasingly harsh lockdowns, and a third straight year saw waning public acceptance of the measures, finally sparking into unprecedented protests in many Chinese cities in November, which appear to have pushed authorities to finally open.

The focus now turns on rapidly vaccinating the elderly population, with fears of a huge pressure on China’s healthcare system as case numbers surge following the easing.

Only 40% of the 30 million above-80 population has received the three doses of Chinese vaccines that have been shown to be effective in preventing hospitalisation and death. One of Wednesday’s measures called for ramping up vaccination efforts for the elderly by setting up special channels and temporary vaccination sites, with the country now facing race against time to protect the vulnerable as it continues to open.

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