China announces withdrawal of strict anti-COVID-19 measures

In a sharp reversal, China has announced a series of measures that will reverse some of its most draconian anti-COVID-19 restrictions, including limiting strict lockdowns and ordering schools with no known infections to resume regular classes.

The National Health Commission on Wednesday said in a 10-point announcement that COVID-19 testing and a clean bill of health displayed on a smartphone app are no longer required, barring vulnerable areas such as nurseries, aged care facilities and schools . It also limited the extent of the lockdown to individual floors and buildings of apartments rather than entire districts and neighborhoods.

People who have tested positive for the virus can isolate themselves at home rather than in overcrowded and unsanitary field hospitals, and schools that have not seen any outbreaks must return to classroom instruction.

The announcement follows recent street protests in several cities against the strict “zero-COVID” policy, now entering its fourth year, which has been accused of upending normal life, travel and employment while unifying the national economy to deliver a hard blow.

China has tried to stick to the hard line while keeping the world’s second-largest economy afloat, but public frustration with the restrictions seems to have finally swayed the minds of officials who advocate “zero-COVID” as superior to the approach foreign nations have opened up in hopes of learning to live with the virus.

“The relevant departments in all places must continue to improve their political positions … and resolutely correct the simplified ‘one size fits all’ approach,” the commission said in its statement, which was published on its website.

A person holds a sign as protesters gather at Freedom Plaza
The announcement follows recent protests in several cities.
Jose Luis Magan/AP

Officials, often those at the local level, who are under intense pressure to prevent outbreaks, “must counteract and overcome formalism and bureaucracy and take strict and detailed measures to protect, as much as possible, the safety and health of people and mitigate the effects of the.” epidemic to minimize economic and social development,” the statement said.

Newly reported cases of COVID-19 in China have fallen from a daily record of more than 40,000 in recent days to just 20,764 on Wednesday, the vast majority of them asymptomatic.

Under the new measures, lockdowns will not last more than five days unless more cases are discovered, restrictions on cold medicine sales are lifted and vaccinations for the elderly are boosted.

Orders for businesses and transport companies to suspend their services will be lifted and more attention will be paid to public safety as emergency exits are no longer blocked due to lockdown orders.

Recent protests have included calls for President Xi Jinping to resign. The protests began on November 25 after at least 10 people died in a fire at an apartment building in north-west Urumqi. Authorities dismissed evidence that firefighters or victims were blocked by locked doors or other antivirus controls. But the disaster became a focus of public frustration.

In its statement, the National Health Commission made no reference to the fire, the protests, or a formal end to “zero COVID,” which has been closely linked to Xi’s authority. Politics has kept most visitors away from China, disrupting manufacturing and global trade.

    A woman gets her routine COVID-19 throat swab
People who test positive can now be quarantined at home instead of in overcrowded field hospitals.
Andy Wong/AP

Officials have been gradually lifting the restrictions for days.

On Monday, commuters in Beijing and at least 16 other cities were allowed to board buses and subways without a virus test for the first time in months in the previous 48 hours.

Industrial hubs, including Guangzhou, near Hong Kong, have reopened markets and businesses and lifted most movement restrictions, while restrictions on neighborhoods with infections have been maintained.

The government last week announced plans to vaccinate millions of people in their 70s and 80s, a condition of ending “zero-COVID” restrictions.

Health experts and economists warn that it will take mid-2023 and possibly 2024 before vaccination rates are high enough and hospitals are prepared for a possible outbreak of infections. China announces withdrawal of strict anti-COVID-19 measures


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