BEIJING, Dec 1 (Reuters) – China is softening its tone on the seriousness of COVID-19 and easing some coronavirus restrictions even as the number of daily cases hover at all-time highs, after anger over tougher restrictions of the world sparked 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.
The health authorities that 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 largest 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 growth much slower than seen in decades.
Despite a near-record number of cases, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees COVID efforts, said the virus’s ability to cause disease was weakening, state media reported.
“The country faces 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 virus containment is accumulated,” Sun said in comments posted on state media.
Sun also urged further “optimization” of testing, treating and quarantine policies.
The mention of weakened pathogenicity contrasts with previous messages from the authorities about the lethality of the virus.
Less than 24 hours after violent protests in Guangzhou, authorities in at least seven districts of Hong Kong’s sprawling northern manufacturing hub said they would lift temporary lockdowns. One district said it would allow in-person classes at schools to resume and would reopen restaurants and other businesses, including movie theaters.
Some changes are rolling out 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 up and down from the house of a positive case should also quarantine at home, a committee member said.
That is a far cry from quarantine protocols earlier in the year, when entire communities were locked down, sometimes for weeks, after a single positive case was found.
Another nearby community is conducting an online survey this week about the possibility of positive cases isolating 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 bleak, to say the least.”
Leading nationalist commentator Hu Xijin said in a social media post on Wednesday that many asymptomatic coronavirus carriers in Beijing were already self-quarantined at home.
The southwestern city of Chongqing will allow close contacts of people with COVID, who meet certain conditions, to self-quarantine 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 authorities would respond to “urgent concerns” raised by the public and that COVID rules should be implemented more flexibly, depending on conditions in a region.
REOPENING NEXT YEAR?
Expectations have risen 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 ramped up.
Chinese stocks and markets around the world initially fell after weekend protests in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, but then rallied on hopes that public pressure could lead to a new approach by the authorities.
More outbreaks of COVID could affect economic activity in China in the near term, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday, adding that it saw room for a safe recalibration of policies that could allow economic growth to pick up in 2023.
China’s strict containment measures have slowed domestic economic activity this year and have spread to other countries through supply chain disruptions.
Following downbeat data from an official survey on Wednesday, the Caixin/S&P Global Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index showed factory activity contracted in November for the fourth straight month. read more
While the change in tone on COVID seems a response to public discontent with the strict measures, the authorities are also searching for questioning those present at the demonstrations.
The China Dissent Monitor, run by the US government-funded Freedom House, estimated that at least 27 demonstrations took place in China between Saturday and Monday. Australia’s ASPI think tank estimated 43 protests in 22 cities.
Additional reporting by Ellen Zhang; Written by Marius Zaharia; Edited by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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