China: here’s how the government relaxed its “zero Covid” policy

December 1, 2019. It was on this date that the first known patient infected with Covid-19 showed symptoms of the disease. It was in Wuhan, China. Three years later, the country led by Xi Jinping is the latest nation in the world to impose severe restrictions on health measures to contain the pandemic. However, after days of protests that have taken the world by surprise, things may finally be changing.

The times we live in are confusing. Instead of a single decision by Beijing to overturn pandemic policies, multiple independent decisions were announced by local governments last week. These are mainly related to the completion of the obligation of PCR tests and the reopening of businesses. However, these decisions sometimes conflict with each other, and many Chinese cities maintain their strict controls.

Many people are cheering that China is finally starting to focus its response to the pandemic on vaccines and treatments instead of lockdowns and business closures, as these strategies have hit the Chinese economy hard. But due to the lack of clear messages from those in power, doubts are starting to grow.


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Speculations began after the blurb. On November 30, China’s Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, nicknamed the “Zero Covid Czar”, stated in a meeting in Beijing that the fight against the pandemic in China “faces new situations and new tasks while the Omicron variant takes center stage. He did not mention the dynamic zero Covid policy. .This is China’s general strategy to eliminate domestic epidemics at all costs.Some saw it as evidence of a permanent change.

Following this, at least three provinces and 13 other cities covering China’s most economically developed regions announced changes to local regulations to control Covid-19 patients from Monday, December 5.

The main event in the viewfinder: mass screening campaigns using PCR tests

Since May 2020, when Wuhan managed to test more than 10 million people in 10 days, China has been conducting mass screening campaigns using PCR tests. This year, with the spread of the Omicron variant, the frequency of such campaigns has increased, and many cities have introduced mandatory tests for all citizens every two or three days. Since there is no negative result recently, citizens cannot use public transport or even enter shops, which makes their daily life much more difficult.

The situation is finally changing. Many local governments are now replacing mandatory PCR testing with a new regime called “昈没尽没”, which can be translated into English as “all who want to be tested can be tested”. The demand for a negative PCR test result is raised throughout China. Cities such as Tianjin have adopted it for public transport. It has been abolished in most public places in Shanghai, and Beijing has even abolished it for buying drugs at pharmacies.

These new measures have been welcomed by people like Eric, a Guangzhou resident who has resisted mass PCR testing campaigns and suffered the anxiety they caused. For a long time, his health QR code was yellow. This prevented him from taking public transport, but his QR code suddenly turned green last week as Guangzhou changed its Covid rules.

In fact, the neighborhood committee that implements China’s pandemic policy at the local level gave it an unusual and refreshing note: it encouraged people to “do less PCR testing and more antigen at home.” The reason was this: a positive PCR test result means your entire building will be shut down unless the results of the self-administered antigen test are reported to the government.

Most of China maintains the old restrictions or remains confused

These recent policy changes do not affect certain aspects of China’s health measures in response to the pandemic, such as the extensive health QR code system and massive central quarantine facilities. However, people see the latest changes as a direct result of the protests that have plagued China in recent weeks, and welcome even small steps towards easing the rules.


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Chaos and unresolved issues related to Covid remain in China. First of all, depending on the region, the rules are not the same. Apart from cities that have rejected PCR testing requirements, most of China either maintains the old restrictions or remains in limbo. Hefei, a city in eastern China with a population of more than seven million, said on Sunday it “can only increase, not decrease, the number of sites where a negative PCR test is required”. Jinhzhou, a smaller city, redoubled its lockdown measures on Thursday before immediately reversing its stance and reopening public spaces the following day. Even among cities that relax testing requirements, regulations vary. Some still require testing to enter indoor spaces or receive medical services.

Because of these inconsistencies, people traveling from one city to another with different rules must still take a PCR test, even if they are told that it is technically no longer necessary. In addition, some cities have already begun to close sites where PCR tests can be done for free. A maneuver that has the effect of lengthening queues and increasing the cost of taking the same tests.

In the absence of a clear message from the central government, cities are simply guessing what Beijing will decide next. As always, it is the population that must accept differences and manage uncertainty.

China’s healthcare system will be tested

Although the protests have died down, this is only the beginning of a move towards easing Covid restrictions – if China follows through. Abandoning the zero-Covid policy will not be easy, as the number of cases and deaths will increase and China’s already weak health system will be strained. By November, only 40% of Chinese over 80 had received a booster shot. Studies show that the latter can significantly increase protection against Covid. The researchers also estimated that one to two million deaths could occur if China eases its response to the pandemic without increasing access to vaccines and treatments.

“Right now, Xi Jinping’s China has become a time machine that takes us back to the dark days of 2020, first to the drama of Wuhan, then to the horror of Bergamo and the chaotic emergency of New York. Then we have problems. China’s problems today: human losses versus massive economic losses. how to balance,” writes Columbia University history professor Adam Tooze.

Regardless, the government needs to be more consistent in its messages and policies. The Chinese hope this will happen soon. According to Reuters, China may soon announce ten mitigation measures.

Article by Zeyi Yang, translated from English by Kozi Pastakia.


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