China has announced a nationwide loosening of COVID-19 curbs following a wave of unprecedented protests against the measures.
In a statement on Wednesday, the National Health Commission (NHC) said asymptomatic COVID-19 cases and people with mild symptoms would be allowed to quarantine at home rather than in field hospitals that some have criticised as unsanitary and overcrowded.
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The health authority’s new rules also limited lockdowns to individual apartment floors and buildings, rather than entire districts and neighbourhoods.
The change marks a significant rollback compared with earlier in the year, when whole communities were locked down, sometimes for weeks, sometimes after just a single positive case.
The NHC said high-risk areas should now be accurately defined by building, unit, floor and household, and must not be arbitrarily expanded to entire residential compounds and communities.
It also said the frequency and scope of PCR testing would be reduced, with mandatory mass testing – long a tedious mainstay of life in zero-COVID China – restricted to “high-risk” areas and schools.
People travelling between provinces will also no longer require a negative test taken within 48 hours, the NHC said, and they will not be required to test on arrival at their destination.
The health authority went on to urge localities to “resolutely rectify simplified, one-size-fits-all, and adding extra measures” for COVID-19 prevention and to reject and overcome “formalism and bureaucracy”.
The rollback of curbs follows street protests that broke out in November in several cities – including Beijing and Shanghai – over zero-COVID, President Xi Jinping’s signature policy. Triggered by a deadly fire at a partially locked-down building in the western city of Urumqi, the protests were the biggest in China since Xi assumed office in 2013.
Beijing has defended the zero-COVID policy as necessary to save lives and prevent overwhelming the healthcare system, but the public frustration appears to have finally swayed the opinion of officials who had championed the strategy as superior to the approach of foreign nations that have opened up in hopes of learning to live with the virus.
“Zero-COVID policy or strategy is not really to achieve absolute zero circumstance,” Independent China Strategist Andrew K P Leung said to Al Jazeera.
Leung explained that it is designed to detect the cases, isolate individuals, prevent the spread and find a cure as soon as possible.
“In fact, that strategy has been relatively successful compared to other countries,” Leung added.
Wednesday’s announcement came hours after the government released further data showing the crippling economic effects of zero-COVID.
Imports and exports plunged in November to levels not seen since early 2020.
Imports in November fell 10.6 percent year-on-year, the biggest drop since May 2020, according to the General Administration of Customs. Exports fell 8.7 percent over the same period.
Shanghai Disneyland theme park will reopen to visitors on Thursday as part of easing of COVID-19 control measures, according to a statement issued by Shanghai Disney Resort. The theme park was closed on November 29 after stricter COVID prevention measures were introduced.