China began streamlining its approach last month, urging locations to be more targeted. But initial reactions have been one of confusion and even tighter lockdowns as cities scramble to keep rising cases under control.
Then a deadly apartment fire last month in the far western city of Urumqi sparked dozens of COVID-curb protests in over 20 cities, in a wave unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 was.
Authorities have arrested several people who took part in the protests, and police in cities like Shanghai have checked commuters’ phones for virtual private network apps or software that protesters used to communicate with, according to protesters and social media posts.
Over the weekend, police maintained a heavy presence around the Liangmaqiao intersection in east Beijing as authorities attempted to delay any possible follow-up to last weekend’s unrest.
A similarly large police presence was seen on streets near Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Road, which is named after Urumqi and was the scene of a vigil for victims of the fire that turned into protests last weekend.
More tailwinds coming
China is expected to announce a nationwide easing of testing requirements, allowing positive cases and close contacts to self-isolate under certain conditions, people familiar with the matter told Reuters this week.
Xi blamed the mass protests on youth frustrated by years of the pandemic during a meeting with European Union officials in Beijing on Thursday, but said the now-dominant Omicron variant of the virus has paved the way for fewer restrictions, EU officials said. Officer.
Officials have only recently begun to downplay the dangers of Omicron, a major messaging change in a country where fears of COVID are rife.
On Friday, some Beijing neighborhoods posted guidelines on social media on how to quarantine positive cases at home, a landmark move that represents a break with official guidance to send such people to central quarantine.
But the relief has also been accompanied by concerns, particularly from people who feel more exposed to the disease.
Many analysts say they still don’t expect any significant reopening until at least after March as China has yet to see results in a just-launched vaccination campaign for the elderly.
Estimates of how many deaths China could see if it moves to fully reopening range from 1.3 million to over 2 million, although some researchers said the death toll could be greatly reduced if the focus were on vaccination would.
“None of this should be interpreted as a fundamental departure from the zero-COVID policy, but rather as an attempt to make it more streamlined and cost-effective. The goal is still to get cases back close to zero,” Capital Economics said in a note, referring to recent policy fine-tuning.
“The alternative of allowing the virus to spread widely before more elderly people are vaccinated and health capacity expanded would lead to a higher death rate than many Asian countries that reopened earlier and undermine China’s zero-COVID success,” they said.
China reported 32,827 daily local COVID-19 infections on Saturday, up from 34,772 the day before. As of Friday, China had reported 5,233 COVID-related deaths and 331,952 cases with symptoms.