China is easing coronavirus restrictions, sparking confusion and fear

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Lockdown arrived in Shijiazhuang this month with little warning. At the time, the northern Chinese city had only a handful of covid cases. Then 12 days later — just as abruptly, even as the number of infections continued to rise — the restrictions were lifted.

Due to the sudden turnaround, residents did not know how to react. Some celebrated the reopening of bars, restaurants and cinemas. Others pledged to stay home and stockpiled traditional flu medicines.

The response to China’s major easing of coronavirus controls has been a jumble of conflicting priorities and public opinion since Beijing announced the changes a week ago. City governments are facing renewed demands that they not respond in ways that disrupt everyday life. At the same time, months of official warnings about catastrophic consequences if the virus runs rampant have left many people fearful of the rising case count in the country.

A 30-year-old employee of a state-owned company in Shijiazhuang was surprised that her “conservative and cautious” hometown had suddenly become an experiment in the country’s attempt to escape the “zero covid” swamp.

“Why suddenly have guts?” she asked, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “I can’t help but feel like we’re the guinea pigs.”

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China reported on Friday that 25,353 individuals had tested positive the previous day, bringing the total number of symptomatic cases to 281,793. While small compared to daily numbers in many countries, such numbers are among the highest China has recorded during the pandemic. No deaths have been reported in the most recent outbreak, but the contrast with months of near-zero infections remains shocking.

Growing frustrations since the government’s announcement have turned chaotic at times. In the southern city of Guangzhou, protests escalated into violent clashes with police on Monday after the Haizhu district extended lockdowns, while the rest of the city eased restrictions.

That followed the decision by the Guangzhou government in early November to force out-of-town workers to leave the city. Upon returning from quarantine centers, many were denied access to their homes. Some accused the authorities of negligence and discrimination against people without a local settlement residence permit.

The restaurant She Qianfeng runs was temporarily closed after dining was banned again, and he has since joined a group of volunteers who distribute food and other supplies. “Residents were unhappy because they think the government was ill-prepared and not looking after them properly,” said She, who is from Hubei in central China. Tensions flared. “Some got overly emotional and escalated the conflict. … A lot of people were more afraid of going into quarantine than anything else.”

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Much of the uncertainty stems from officials’ confused and even contradictory messages. Two weeks ago, financial markets rose exuberantly on rumors of an imminent national easing of corona measures. Health officials then denied any shift and pledged “unwavering” adherence to the long-standing zero-covid policy. Days later, the government released its 20-point plan to slowly let go quarantine and testing requirements.

Quarantine periods were reduced from 10 days to eight, with five days spent in centralized quarantine and three at home. Contacts of contacts of infected persons no longer have to go to centralized quarantine facilities. International flight routes will not be suspended if too many people test positive on arrival. At least eight cities, including Shanghai, have scrapped mass testing requirements.

Official media have since had been on a propaganda blitz to combat public discontent. The Chinese Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, launched a question-and-answer column on Friday focused solely on the government’s plan. The state-run Xinhua News Agency warned that “just shut down and just open up” was equally unacceptable.

For local officials responsible for implementing control measures, an already extremely difficult task, has become even more difficult. Officially, the approach remains known as “dynamic zero covid”. The goal is still to identify cases early and to block them immediately to remove transmission by infected individuals from the general population. But due to the updated policy, the pressure is increasing to do so without disrupting daily life.

The Nov. 11 announcement threatened punishment for excessive “one-size-fits-all” or other forms of arbitrary coronavirus restrictions that could harm the economy and society. But that usually means “a slap on the wrist, so the overarching priority is still covid control,” said Hongshen Zhu, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the tradeoffs caused by China’s coronavirus guidelines.

The spreading outbreak and weaker containment measures have sparked debate over whether China’s zero-covid strategy is now only nominal. The government emphatically denies this. At a press conference last weekend National Health Commission spokesperson Mi Feng stressed that the new measures were about optimizing policies, not openness or “lying down.”

Instead of trying to live with the virus, as most of the world does, Beijing wants a “not only but also” approach that values ​​normal life and intervention in outbreaks equally, wrote Zichen Wang, author of the Pekingnology newsletter and a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank.

Health officials claim that abandoning the zero-covid policy completely would be disastrous for vulnerable populations. They point to Hong Kong, where a sudden wave of infections combined with a slow rollout of vaccines in March led to the highest death rate in the world.

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Vaccination rates among the elderly in China, which were not initially prioritized in the country’s vaccination rollout, have remained stubbornly low. Only about two-thirds of people over the age of 80 have had the double dose needed for basic immunity. Less than half received a booster.

From the start of the pandemic, critics of government policies have been concerned about the social and economic consequences of giving too much power to local officials during lockdowns. They described a “second-order disaster” stemming as much from the response to the pandemic as from the virus itself.

A WeChat blog published Monday called for jail time as punishment for officials who fail to fulfill their duty to maintain normal life and stop outbreaks. Current incentives focus only on the latter, it argued: not averting an outbreak means bureaucrats lose their jobs, but there is no comparable accountability for acting ineffectively sacrificing people’s livelihoods, property and fundamental freedoms in the name of defeating the virus.

Until that imbalance is addressed, commentator Guanxiangtai concluded, “we won’t be able to solve the overprevention no matter how many meetings are held or how many official documents are released.”

A father posted on social media on Wednesday that his infant daughter had died after being denied immediate medical care because she did not have a negative coronavirus test. Online outrage about the tragedy was largely directed at local officials, but some people also blamed central government policies. A day later, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that children under age 3 are exempt from testing requirements.

“I’ve seen too much news like this in the last three years,” read a comment on Weibo, a Twitter-like site. “Isn’t it the duty of your hospitals to save lives and heal the sick? How many people will die in vain before this farce ends?

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