China appears to be like to ease COVID curbs after per week of historic protests

  • China allows home quarantine, reduces mass testing – sources
  • Senior official says virus weakening severity
  • The shift comes after a series of demonstrations
  • Biggest public uprising in ten years

BEIJING, Dec 1 (Reuters) – China will announce easing of its COVID-19 quarantine protocols and a reduction in mass testing in the coming days, sources told Reuters, a significant change in policy after fury at the world’s toughest curbs spread protests were widespread.

Nationwide cases remain near record highs but the changes come as some cities lifted their lockdowns in recent days and a senior official said the virus’s ability to cause disease has weakened.

Health officials announcing the easing in their areas have made no mention of the protests — the largest civil disobedience demonstration in China in years, which has ranged from candlelit vigils in Beijing to street clashes with police in Guangzhou.

Measures to be announced include a reduction in mass testing and regular nucleic acid testing, as well as steps to be able to isolate positive cases and close contacts at home under certain conditions, the sources familiar with the matter said.

That’s a far cry from previous protocols, which caused public frustration as entire communities were locked down, sometimes for weeks, after just one positive case.

Frustration boiled over last week in demonstrations of public defiance unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, and come as the economy looks set to enter a new era of much slower growth than it has been in decades.

CHANGE RULES

Less than 24 hours after violent protests in Guangzhou on Tuesday, authorities in at least seven districts of the sprawling manufacturing center said they would lift the temporary lockdowns. One district said it would allow schools, restaurants and businesses, including movie theaters, to reopen.

Cities like Chongqing and Zhengzhou also announced easing.

Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who is overseeing the COVID effort, added to the sense of a change in direction that the virus’ ability to cause disease is weakening, state media reported.

“The country is facing a new situation and new tasks in epidemic prevention and control as the pathogenicity of omicron virus becomes weaker, more people are vaccinated, and experience of virus containment is gained,” Sun said in comments published published in state media.

Sun also pushed for further “tweaking” of testing, treatment and quarantine policies.

The mention of diminishing pathogenicity contrasts with previous reports by authorities of the lethality of the virus.

“Sun’s speech, in addition to the remarkable easing of COVID control measures in Guangzhou yesterday, sends another strong signal that the zero-COVID policy will end in the coming months,” analysts at Nomura said in a research note.

“These two events may herald the beginning of the end of zero-COVID.”

In the capital, Beijing, some communities have begun to prepare for change.

A community in the east of the city conducted an online survey this week about the possibility of isolating positive cases at home, residents said.

“I certainly welcome our community’s decision to hold this vote regardless of the outcome,” said resident Tom Simpson, executive director for China at the China-Britain Business Council.

He said his main concern was being forced to go to a quarantine facility where “conditions can be grim to say the least”.

Prominent nationalist commentator Hu Xijin said in a social media post on Wednesday that many asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus in Beijing are already being quarantined at home.

REOPENING NEXT YEAR?

Expectations have grown around the world that China, while still trying to contain infections, could try to reopen its borders sometime next year once it achieves better vaccination rates among its reluctant elderly.

Health experts warn of widespread illness and deaths if COVID is unleashed before vaccination ramps up.

Chinese stocks and markets around the world initially fell after weekend protests in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, but later rallied on hopes that public pressure could lead to a new government crackdown.

Further COVID outbreaks could weigh on China’s economic activity in the short term, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday, adding it saw scope for a safe policy recalibration that could allow economic growth to pick up in 2023.

China’s strict containment measures have dampened domestic activity this year and spilled over to other countries through supply chain disruptions.

After weak data in an official survey on Wednesday, the Caixin/S&P Global Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index showed that factory activity contracted for a fourth straight month in November. Continue reading

While the change in tone regarding COVID appears to be a response to public dissatisfaction with strict measures, authorities are also attempting to poll those present at the demonstrations.

China Dissent Monitor, run by the US government-funded organization Freedom House, estimates that at least 27 demonstrations took place across China from Saturday to Monday. Australian think tank ASPI estimated 51 protests in 24 cities.

Additional reporting by Julie Zhu in Hong Kong and Kevin Huang and Ellen Zhang in Beijing; writing by Marius Zaharia and John Geddie; Edited by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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