China began adjusting its approach last month, urging places to become more targeted. However, initial reactions were marked by confusion and even tighter lockdowns as cities scrambled to contain rising cases.
Then last month a deadly apartment fire in the far western city of Urumqi sparked dozens of protests against COVID curbs in more than 20 cities in a wave unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
Authorities arrested several people who took part in the protests and police in cities like Shanghai are checking commuters’ phones for apps or virtual private network software that protesters communicated with, according to protesters and social media posts.
Over the weekend, police had a strong presence around the Liangmaqiao interchange in eastern Beijing as authorities tried 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 was named after Urumqi and was the site of a vigil for victims of the fire that sparked protests last weekend.
Further headwinds are coming
China will further announce a nationwide relaxation of testing requirements and allow positive cases and close contacts to be isolated at home under certain conditions, people familiar with the matter told Reuters this week.
During a meeting with European Union officials in Beijing on Thursday, Xi blamed the mass protests among young people frustrated by years of the pandemic, but said the now-dominant Omicron variant of the virus was paving the way for fewer restrictions, EU said officials.
Officials have only recently begun downplaying the dangers of Omicron, a major change in messaging in a country where fear of COVID is deeply rooted.
On Friday, some Beijing neighborhoods posted guidelines on social media on how to quarantine positive cases at home, a milestone that marks a break from official guidelines to send such people to central quarantine.
Still, the relief has also come with concerns, especially from people who feel more exposed to the disease.
Many analysts say they don’t expect a significant reopening until after March, as China must first deliver on a newly launched vaccination campaign targeting the elderly.
Estimates for the number of deaths China could see if it revolves around a full reopening ranged from 1.3 million to more than 2 million, though some researchers said the death toll could be greatly reduced if attention was paid to vaccination.
“All of this should not be interpreted as a fundamental shift away from the zero COVID policy, but rather an attempt to make it more streamlined and less expensive. The goal is still to reduce the number of cases to near zero,” Capital Economics said in a note, referring to the recent policy refinement.
“The alternative of allowing the virus to spread widely before more elderly people are vaccinated and care capacity ramped up would result in a higher death rate than many Asian countries that reopened earlier, undermining China’s zero COVID success,” they said. they.
China reported 32,827 daily local COVID-19 infections on Saturday, up from 34,772 a day earlier. As of Friday, China had reported 5,233 COVID-related deaths and 331,952 cases with symptoms.