BEIJING, Dec 5 (AP): China is easing some of the world’s most stringent anti-virus controls and authorities say new variants are weaker. But they have yet to say when they might end a “zero-Covid” strategy that confines millions of people to their homes and set off protests and demands for President Xi Jinping to resign.
On Monday, commuters in Beijing and at least 16 other cities were allowed to board buses and subways without a virus test in the previous 48 hours for the first time in months. Industrial centers including Guangzhou near Hong Kong have reopened markets and businesses and lifted most curbs on movement while keeping restrictions on neighbourhoods with infections.
The government announced plans last week to vaccinate millions of people in their 70s and 80s, a condition for ending “zero-Covid” restrictions that keep most visitors out of China and have disrupted manufacturing and global trade.
That spurred hopes for a quick end to “zero Covid.” But health experts and economists warn it will be mid-2023 and possibly 2024 before vaccination rates are high enough and hospitals are prepared to handle a possible rash of infections.
“China is not ready for a fast reopening yet,” Morgan Stanley economists said in a report on Monday. “We expect lingering containment measures. … Restrictions could still tighten dynamically in lower-tier cities should hospitalizations surge.”
The changes follow protests demanding an end to “zero Covid” but are in line with Communist Party promises earlier to reduce disruption by easing quarantine and other restrictions. The changes have been highly publicized in a possible effort to mollify public anger, but there is no indication whether any might have been made in response to protests in Shanghai and other cities.
China is the only major country still trying to stamp out transmission while the United States and others relax restrictions and try to live with the virus that has killed at least 6.6 million people and infected almost 650 million.
The protests began Nov. 25 after at least 10 people died in a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi in the northwest. Authorities denied suggestions firefighters or victims were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls. But the disaster became a focus for public frustration.
Ahead of the protests, the Communist Party promised to make “zero Covid” less costly and disruptive but said it was sticking to the overall containment strategy.
The party earlier announced updates to the strategy to make it more focused. Authorities began suspending access to buildings or neighbourhoods with an infection instead of whole cities. But a spike in cases starting in October prompted areas across China to close schools and confine families to cramped apartments for weeks at a time.
Authorities say they are “further optimizing” controls and warn the country needs to stay alert.
China faces “new situations and tasks” due to the “weakening of the pathogenicity” of the latest omicron variant, a deputy premier in charge of the anti-virus campaign, Sun Chunlan, said last week. She said China has “effective diagnosis and treatment” and has vaccinated more than 90% of its people.
The ruling party is trying to balance “epidemic prevention, economic stability and security for development,” Sun said Wednesday in a conference with health officials, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.