At least a dozen cities across China have eased COVID-19 restrictions following a wave of unprecedented protests last month, with Shanghai becoming the latest metropolis to scrap public transport tests and Urumqi reopening malls and restaurants for the first time in months.
In China’s largest city, Shanghai, where protesters had called for President Xi Jinping to resign over his “zero-COVID” policy, authorities said on Sunday residents no longer need a negative test result to use public transport or outdoor locations such as parks and tourist attractions.
The relaxation follows similar moves from Beijing, Shenzhen, Chengdu and Tianjin, all of which canceled public transit testing requirements on Saturday.
In the far west of Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region where anti-government protests first broke out, authorities reopened ski resorts and shopping malls and allowed restaurants to open their doors for takeout. They said movie theaters, gyms and parks would also be allowed to open gradually, with restrictions on the number of people allowed to enter the venues.
It was the death of 10 people in a fire in a partially enclosed building in Urumqi that sparked the November protests. The city had been on lockdown since August.
Some social media users at the time said victims had been unable to escape the blaze due to the COVID-19 restrictions, although authorities denied this was the case.
The protests, which spread to more than 20 cities in China, were an unprecedented display of civil disobedience on the mainland since Xi came to power in 2012. In the days since, at least 12 cities across the country have curbed some of the COVID-19, according to the state’s tabloid Global Times, in what officials described as part of an “optimization of epidemic control measures.”
Wang Guangfa, an expert at Peking University First Hospital, told the tabloid that easing curbs should not be taken as a “full opening up.”
“We have optimized our epidemic control measures in accordance with the characteristics of the virus variant, creating a new balance between epidemic control and social and economic activities,” he said.
“We are unlikely to emerge from the pandemic anytime soon this winter,” he said, noting that many countries saw a rise in cases amid the cold weather.
Curbs rolled back
Steps to ease COVID-19 restrictions have varied in different Chinese cities so far.
On Sunday, authorities in the central city of Zhengzhou — home to the world’s largest iPhone factory, which was rocked by violent unrest last month — said people would no longer have to show COVID-19 test results to use public transport, taxis and visits. take “public spaces”. But while karaoke bars, beauty salons, internet cafes and other indoor venues are allowed to reopen, they must check for a negative 48-hour COVID test result.
Nanning, the capital of southern Guangxi, and Wuhan, the central city where the first cases of the novel coronavirus emerged three years ago, also removed a requirement for a negative test to take the subway on Sunday.
Meanwhile, authorities in Guangzhou’s Haizhu district, where violent clashes took place last month, said on Sunday it advised people without COVID-19 symptoms not to get tested for the virus unless they belong to certain groups, such as frontline workers.
Beijing also scrapped registration requirements on Saturday for people who want to buy medicines for fever, cough and sore throat. The restriction was imposed because authorities believed people were using the medication to hide COVID-19 infections.
Authorities in several districts in the capital also recently announced that people who test positive for the virus can self-quarantine at home.
Some inconsistencies as restrictions ease have angered people, including a requirement for a negative COVID-19 test in some places even though mass testing centers were closing.
In Beijing and Wuhan, this resulted in long queues at the few remaining test booths.
“Are they stupid or just mean?” one social media user asked. “We should not close COVID test stations until we lose the COVID test pass.”
The number of new daily cases fell to 31,824 nationwide, authorities said Sunday, which may be due in part to fewer people being tested. Authorities also reported two more COVID-19 deaths.
Despite the easing of curbs, many experts said China was unlikely to begin a major reopening until March at the earliest, given the need to ramp up vaccinations, especially among its large elderly population.
While nine in 10 Chinese people have been vaccinated, only 66 percent of people over the age of 80 have received one shot, while 40 percent have received a booster, according to the National Health Commission. It said 86 percent of people over 60 have been vaccinated.
Given those numbers and the fact that relatively few Chinese have built up antibodies from exposure to the virus, some fear millions will die if restrictions are lifted completely.
“Some people have doubts about the safety and effectiveness of the country’s new coronavirus vaccine,” said an article in the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily on Sunday.
“Experts say this perception is wrong,” it said, adding that domestically-made vaccines were safe.