China pivots from ‘zero-Covid’ policy, eases more curbs

Updated on Dec 07, 2022 06:23 PM IST

The new rules announced on Wednesday by the State Council, the country’s Cabinet, means that China is finally, and rapidly, dismantling the ‘zero-Covid’ policy, which had kept infection numbers low but had severely disrupted lives and damaged the economy

A pandemic volunteer adjusts his mask near stone lions outside a supermarket in Beijing, on Wednesday. In a sharp reversal, China has announced a series of measures rolling back some of the most draconian anti-Covid-19 restrictions. (AP)
A pandemic volunteer adjusts his mask near stone lions outside a supermarket in Beijing, on Wednesday. In a sharp reversal, China has announced a series of measures rolling back some of the most draconian anti-Covid-19 restrictions. (AP)

Beijing: China on Wednesday rolled back more of its controversial ‘zero-Covid’ policies including allowing mild or asymptomatic patients to quarantine at home rather than at centralised facilities and doing away with nucleic acid tests (NAT) to travel within the country, less than two weeks after facing widespread protests against the curbs.

The government also said people do not need to show NAT results to enter most venues in the country other than designated places like schools and hospitals.

The 10 new rules announced on Wednesday by the State Council, the country’s Cabinet, means that China is finally, and rapidly, dismantling the ‘zero-Covid’ policy, which had kept infection numbers low but had severely disrupted lives and damaged the economy.

The changes mean that China is finally looking to “live with the virus”, which is what the rest of the world is doing.

The curbs, however, have been eased as China grapples with its worst country-wide outbreak with over 25,000 positive cases being logged daily for weeks. A vast majority of the cases, however, are mild, state media reports have said.

Targeted lockdowns of communities with positive cases would likely continue with experts saying China should now expect a surge in Covid-19 cases.

Several major cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou had already announced easing of testing requirements and scanning the health code to enter some public venues over the weekend.

But Wednesday’s changes were the first ones announced at the national level, a definite change from China’s stubborn strategy to stamp out each outbreak with stringent curbs comprising mass tests, contact tracing and quarantine and hard lockdowns.

Testing for Covid-19 has been further streamlined, the new rules said.

“Test results and health codes still need to be shown to enter care homes, welfare institutes, hospitals, kindergartens and primary and high schools,” the state-run China Daily reported, quoting the modified set of rules.

China has used a mandatory health code on mobile phones, introduced in 2020, to track individuals’ health statuses. The colour code - red, amber or green - would decide whether citizens could access public transport or venues.

Under the guidelines released on Wednesday, people will be able to enter most places without showing a negative test result or their health code - a significant step after nearly three years of disruption to people’s daily routines and livelihoods.

“In addition, people who travel to other regions of China will no longer be tested for Covid-19 upon arrival, nor will they be checked for nucleic acid test results or health codes during their trip,” the newspaper report said.

Schools without Covid cases should resume in-person classes, the guidelines said.

“Schools where outbreaks are occurring should note specific areas of risks on their campuses, such as a classroom, but all activities outside such designated areas should be carried out as usual,” the new guidelines said.

Infected people who don’t exhibit serious symptoms may quarantine at home or be taken to quarantine facilities if they wish. “After showing negative nucleic acid tests consecutively on the sixth and seventh day, people in quarantine will be released.”

“Furthermore, close contacts of confirmed cases may quarantine at home or opt to go to a quarantine facility for five days. They will be released after testing negative on the fifth day,” was another change in rules brought in on Wednesday.

The easing of rules, however, has brought about the fear of a wider outbreak among the people.

Experts said a surge is highly possible. “Some degree of surge is likely, and some studies have predicted millions of cases. Hong Kong experienced by far its largest wave in early 2022, peaking at almost 300 deaths per day. China is 200 times bigger so anything similar replicated across the whole country would be very serious indeed,” Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of The Year the World went Mad,” a book on the Covid-19 pademic, said.

The easing of rules triggered heavy searches for the cost of flight and train tickets.

“Ticket searches for the impending 2023 Spring Festival (in January) hit a three-year high on a number of travel platforms,” the tabloid,” Global Times reported Wednesday.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Sutirtho Patranobis has been in Beijing since 2012, as Hindustan Times’ China correspondent. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath. Patranobis covered several beats including health and national politics in Delhi before being posted abroad.

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