Relief and worry as major Chinese cities ease Covid-19 curbs

Security personnel guard an entrance to a residential area under lockdown in Beijing on Nov 27, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - Further easing of Covid-19 testing requirements and quarantine rules in some Chinese cities was met with a mix of relief and worry on Friday, as hundreds of millions await an expected shift in national virus policies after widespread social unrest.

The more relaxed measures were welcomed by workers frustrated by three years of economically damaging curbs, but have jolted others who suddenly feel more exposed to a disease that the authorities had consistently described as deadly until this week.

Pharmacies in Beijing say purchases of N95 masks, which offer a much higher degree of protection than the single-use surgical masks, have gone up this week. Some people wearing N95 masks on Friday said they got them from their employers.

Such cautious behaviour bodes ill for consumer-facing businesses and factories in large cities hit by Covid-19 whose workers are hoping to stay virus-free at least until they return to their families in the countryside for Chinese New Year.

The elderly, many of whom are still unvaccinated, feel the most vulnerable.

Mr Shi Wei, a Beijing resident with lymphatic cancer, spends most of his time isolating but still worries about getting Covid-19 and passing the virus to his 80-year-old mother as he goes out for treatment at the hospital every three weeks.

“I can only pray God protects me,” he said.

China’s Covid-19 policies have hammered its economy, choking everything from domestic consumption to factory output to global supply chains, and caused severe mental stress for hundreds of millions of people.

Anger over the world’s toughest curbs fuelled dozens of protests in more than 20 cities in recent days, in a show of civil disobedience unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

Less than 24 hours after people clashed with white hazmat-suited riot police in Guangzhou, a sprawling manufacturing hub just north of Hong Kong, the city lifted lockdowns in at least seven of its districts.

“Finally, we can slowly return to our normal lives,” said Ms Lili, 41, who works for a chain of restaurants in Guangzhou that was allowed to reopen on Thursday.

Lockdown interruptions over the last few years resulted in a 30 per cent drop in earnings, she said.

“The public could not stand it any longer, and everyone wished that we could reopen... The Guangzhou government probably heard what we were asking for and thought it was about time,” said Ms Lili.

Some communities now require less frequent testing and are allowing close contacts of infected people to quarantine at home, according to the state media.

But the uneven easing of rules around the city is causing other kinds of trouble for its residents.

“I am leaving on holiday tomorrow and had to search for a place to get a Covid-19 test because I still need a 48-hour code to get to the airport, but most of the testing stations have been removed,” said a diplomat at a foreign consulate in Guangzhou.

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Softer tone

Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees Covid-19 efforts, said this week that the ability of the virus to cause disease was weakening – a message that aligns with what health authorities around the world have said for more than a year.

While the authorities in cities that have lifted lockdowns did not mention the protests in their announcements, national health officials have said China will address the “urgent concerns” expressed by the public.

Workers dismantle a temporary shelter outside a Beijing neighbourhood placed under lockdown, on Dec 1, 2022. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

China is set to announce nationwide easing of quarantine and testing requirements, sources told Reuters, in what many hope would make the implementation more uniform.

The measures include a reduction in the use of mass testing and regular nucleic acid tests, as well as moves to allow positive cases and close contacts to isolate at home under certain conditions, the sources familiar with the matter said.

Some communities in Beijing and elsewhere already allow close contacts of infected people to quarantine at home, while some shopping malls in the capital reopened from Thursday.

One residential community in east Beijing on Friday sent a notice to say those who have “no social activities”, such as homebound elderly and infants, no longer need to get tested regularly “to reduce the risk of crowding”.

Several testing booths in the area have stopped operating and the numbers of those getting tested have dropped 20 to 30 per cent, a testing staff member said. Still, the park nearby remained closed, while restaurants and cafes sold only takeaway food and drinks.

Earlier this year, entire communities were locked down, sometimes for weeks, after just one positive case, with people stuck indoors losing income, having poor access to basic necessities and struggling to cope mentally with the isolation.

Disparate implementation

Some areas in Guangzhou resumed dine-in services, and residents are no longer asked to present negative polymerase chain reaction tests to enter, state media reported.

People shopping at a supermarket in Haizhu district, Guangzhou, on Nov 30, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

In Shenzhen, some people will be allowed to quarantine at home. In Chongqing, businesses from barber shops to gyms were allowed to resume this week.

In Chengdu, in Sichuan province, passengers no longer need negative test results to take the bus or subway. In Jincheng, halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, people can now enter karaoke venues, but still cannot dine inside restaurants.

At the same time, many communities in areas designated as high-risk by various cities remain under lockdown and many still need to undergo daily tests.

“The uplifted mood isn’t universal,” a Guangzhou-based diplomat said. “Although a lot of people are enjoying new-found freedom, it’s worth noting that there are still hundreds of high-risk zones that are locked down throughout the city.” REUTERS

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