China Eases Pandemic Controls But Won't Say When 'Zero-COVID' Policy Will End
China is easing some of the world’s most stringent anti-virus controls and authorities say new variants are weaker.
Photo Insert: China is the only major country still trying to stamp out transmission while the US 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.
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, Joe McDonald reported for the Associated Press (AP).
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 neighborhoods 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 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 US 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 neighborhoods 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.