BEIJING, Dec 1 (Reuters) – China is softening its tone on the severity of COVID-19 and easing some coronavirus restrictions even as the daily number of cases hovers near record highs after anger over the world’s tighter restrictions fueled protests across the country.
Several cities in the world’s second-largest economy, while still reporting new infections, are breaking the practice by lifting district lockdowns and allowing businesses to reopen.
Health officials who announced the relaxation of measures made no mention of the protests, which ranged from candlelight vigils in Beijing to clashes with police on the streets of Guangzhou on Tuesday and at an iPhone factory in Zhengzhou last week.
The demonstrations marked the biggest display of civil disobedience in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power a decade ago and come as the economy is poised to enter a new era of much slower growth than seen in decades.
Despite the near record number of cases, Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan, who oversees COVID efforts, said the virus’s ability to cause disease was weakening, state media reported.
“The country is facing a new situation and new tasks in epidemic prevention and control, as the pathogenicity of the Omicron virus weakens, more people are vaccinated, and experience in containing the virus is accumulated,” Sun said in remarks reported to media. state-owned.
Sun also called for more “optimization” of testing, treatment and quarantine policies.
The mention of a weakened pathogenicity contrasts with previous messages from the authorities about the lethality of the virus.
CHANGE OF RULES
Less than 24 hours after the violent protests in Guangzhou, authorities in at least seven districts of Hong Kong’s sprawling northern industrial hub said they were lifting temporary lockdowns. One district said it would allow schools to resume in-person classes and reopen restaurants and other businesses, including movie theaters.
Some changes are being implemented with little fanfare.
A community of thousands in eastern Beijing is allowing infected people with mild symptoms to self-isolate at home, according to new rules issued by the neighborhood committee and seen by Reuters.
Neighbors on the same floor and three floors above and below the home of a positive case should also be quarantined at home, a committee member said.
This is a far cry from the quarantine protocols at the start of the year, when entire communities were locked down, sometimes for weeks, after just one positive case was found.
Another nearby community is conducting an online survey this week about the possibility of isolating positive cases at home, residents said.
“I certainly welcome our residential community’s decision to hold this vote regardless of the outcome,” said resident Tom Simpson, managing director for China at the China-Britain Business Council.
He said his main concern was being forced into a quarantine facility, where “conditions can be grim to say the least”.
Prominent nationalist commentator Hu Xijin said in a social media post on Wednesday that many asymptomatic coronavirus carriers in Beijing were already quarantined at home.
The southwestern city of Chongqing will allow close contacts of people with COVID, who meet certain conditions, to be quarantined at home, while Zhengzhou, in central China, announced the “orderly” resumption of businesses, including supermarkets, gyms and restaurants.
National health officials said this week that officials would respond to “urgent concerns” raised by the public and that COVID rules should be implemented more flexibly in line with conditions in the region.
REOPENING NEXT YEAR?
Expectations have grown around the world that China, while still trying to contain infections, could reopen sometime next year once it achieves better vaccination rates among its elderly.
Health experts warn of widespread illness and death if COVID is released before vaccination is stepped up.
Chinese stocks and markets around the world initially fell after the weekend’s protests in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, but then recovered on hopes that public pressure could lead to a new approach from the authorities.
More COVID outbreaks could weigh on China’s economic activity in the near term, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday, adding it saw room for a safe recalibration of policies that could allow economic growth to resume in 2023.
China’s strict containment measures have reduced domestic economic activity this year and spread to other countries through supply chain disruptions.
Following pessimistic data in an official survey on Wednesday, the Caixin/S&P Global manufacturing purchasing managers’ index showed that manufacturing activity shrank in November for the fourth straight month. see more information
While the change in tone regarding COVID appears to be a response to public discontent with strict measures, authorities are also looking to question those present at demonstrations.
The China Dissent Monitor, run by the US government-funded Freedom House, estimated that at least 27 demonstrations took place across China from Saturday to Monday. The Australian think tank ASPI estimated 43 protests in 22 cities.
Additional reporting by Ellen Zhang; Written by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel
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