According to the official data, the latest outbreak of covid-19 is waning in China. The number of new cases has fallen recently, to fewer than 30,000 a day, from a peak of more than 40,000 in late November. But that is probably because fewer people are being tested. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more Chinese are catching the disease, increasing the risk of a very large wave (the Omicron variant advances at a dizzying rate). That is a troubling prospect for China’s undervaccinated population. Far from locking down, though, the government is loosening its covid controls.
China’s “zero-covid” policy has relied on three mechanisms to contain outbreaks. The first is regular mass testing, which aims to find infected people fast. The second is centralised quarantine, to keep the infected and their close contacts away from the rest of the public. The third is lockdowns, to stamp out any spread of the disease. All these mechanisms are now being dismantled.
Start with mass testing. In recent days Beijing, Shanghai and many other cities announced that they would no longer require residents to show a recent negative test to enter shopping malls or to use public transport. Some cities have even discouraged people from getting tested unless they are in certain professions, such as medical work. Many covid testing booths have been removed from China’s streets. Where such sites still exist, people are often discouraged from queueing. A nationwide reduction in testing requirements may be in the offing.
Efforts to quarantine all positive cases are also being eased. In several cities, close contacts of cases and people with mild symptoms have been allowed to isolate at home and test themselves. Reuters, a news agency, has reported that this could soon become a national policy. Allowing home quarantine may sound like a small concession to those fed up with zero-covid. But until recently the infected were dragged off to quarantine facilities, and buying a self-testing kit would have triggered a call from authorities.
Lockdowns, too, are slowly being lifted. Nomura, a bank, estimates that on December 5th some 452.5m people were affected by various lockdown measures. That is still a large chunk of China’s population (1.4bn), but it is down by 760,000 from the previous week. Big cities are leading the way. Guangzhou, a metropolis in southern China, has lifted many restrictions despite logging thousands of infections a day. Residential compounds in Beijing, which just weeks ago were putting up steel barriers to block exits, are now open. Bars and restaurants in the capital, closed until recently, are opening up, too.
China’s covid policy is not the only thing changing. So is its propaganda. The virus was long portrayed in state media as a terrifying illness, each case a threat to public health. Until late November, the nightly news devoted regular segments to the devastation covid had wreaked on America, which has recorded over 1m deaths from the virus. Long covid, the drawn-out symptoms of the disease, was ”tearing apart American society“, newsreaders claimed on November 26th.
Few, if any, such segments have aired since the beginning of December, though. Instead state media are saying that the Omicron variant is not so scary after all, pointing to the low number of deaths and severe cases it has caused so far in China. State-run newspapers have begun publishing interviews with doctors who say there is “no evidence” that long covid exists. A well-known nationalist commentator, Hu Xijin, said on social media that he is “mentally prepared” to catch the disease within a month.
Anger and reservations
All these changes are, in part, a reaction to public pressure. During the first two years of the pandemic, the zero-covid policy kept the economy humming by allowing most of the population to live normal, virus-free lives. But the spread of Omicron means more people have been caught in the zero-covid web. The economy has slowed as a result. The situation has angered everyone from migrant labourers to middle-class city-dwellers. In late November there were rare, politically charged protests against zero-covid in cities and on university campuses across the country.
The changes haven’t pleased everyone. Some people are angry at the government’s brazen about-face. “They’ll do whatever they want. The so-called ‘relaxation’ could be reversed tomorrow,” says a resident of Shanghai who took part in the protests. “Even if our resistance made them change policy, they don’t think that they did anything wrong. It’s absurd.”
Many others are concerned by the easing of restrictions. “We’ve been under pressure for so long…everyone is still a little worried and unsteady,” says Long Ye, a café owner in the city of Chongqing, which recently lifted restrictions despite logging thousands of new cases a day. Mr Long expects cases to surge. “It is fear of the unknown,” he says, adding that he is concerned about his elderly relatives.
Rather than enjoying their new freedoms, many people are preparing for a wave of infections. Beijing’s streets and malls are still fairly empty; the volume of flights and traffic is lower than before the changes in policy. People out in public often wear tightly fitting N95 masks, rather than the flimsier surgical masks that were once popular. The price of a herbal medicine used against covid (with doubtful effectiveness) has shot up in some pharmacies.
If China reopens too quickly, the epidemic could quickly overwhelm its weak health system. Hundreds of thousands of people could die in an uncontrolled outbreak, according to The Economist’s own modelling. Much will depend on how fast China can vaccinate the elderly. Only 40% of those aged over 80 have received the three doses required to significantly reduce the risk of severe disease or death. A new vaccination campaign has been announced, but it is unclear what new incentives officials will offer. Previous ones, such as giving free boxes of eggs or cash to those who get vaccinated, appear to have been insufficient. So far China has avoided making vaccines compulsory.
For the Communist Party, which portrays itself as largely infallible, big policy changes can be embarrassing. They might imply that it got something wrong. Changing zero-covid is especially tricky, as it is one of President Xi Jinping’s trademark policies. So the party is portraying its shift as building on past victories, rather than caving in to public pressure. “Practice has fully proved that the guidelines and policies for epidemic prevention and control…were correct, scientific and effective,” said a commentary published by the official Xinhua news agency on December 5th. “The most difficult period has passed.” That remains to be seen. ■