BEIJING, Dec 4 (Reuters) – More Chinese cities, including the far western city of Urumqi, announced easing of coronavirus restrictions on Sunday as China sought to make its zero-Covid-19 policy more targeted and less onerous after unprecedented protests against the restrictions last weekend.
Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang region and where the protests first began, will reopen shopping malls, markets, restaurants and other places from Monday, officials said, ending months of strict quarantines.
There were no significant signs of unrest this weekend, although police were out in force in Beijing’s Liangmaqiao district and around Wulumuqi Road, named after Urumqi in Shanghai. Both sites held protests a week ago.
Last month’s deadly fire in Urumqi sparked dozens of protests against COVID restrictions in more than 20 cities after some social media users said victims were unable to escape the fire because their apartment buildings were closed. The authorities denied this.
The protests were an unprecedented display of civil disobedience in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
In the days that followed, numerous cities announced relaxation of lockdowns, testing requirements and quarantine rules.
Sun Chunlan, the deputy prime minister overseeing the COVID effort, said last week that the virus’s ability to cause disease has weakened — a change in messaging consistent with what many health authorities around the world have been saying for more than a year.
Last week, people familiar with the matter told Reuters that China is preparing to announce a nationwide easing of testing requirements, as well as allowing positive cases and close contacts to self-isolate at home under certain conditions.
RULES HAVE BEEN LIFT
For now, steps to ease restrictions vary across the country.
In Zhengzhou, the central city of the world’s largest iPhone factory, which was rocked by violent unrest last month, people will no longer need to show their COVID test results to board public transport, taxis and “go to public areas”. .
Karaoke bars, beauty salons, internet cafes and other indoor venues can reopen, but must verify a negative 48-hour COVID test result.
Starting Monday, a negative COVID test will no longer be required to ride public transportation and visit parks in Shanghai.
Elsewhere, both Nanning, capital of the southern Guangxi region, and Wuhan, the central city where the pandemic began in 2019, lifted the requirement for a negative COVID test to ride the subway on Sunday.
Guangzhou’s Haizhu district, which has seen violent clashes for the past month, said on Sunday that it is now recommending that people with no COVID symptoms not be tested for the virus unless they belong to certain special groups, such as frontline workers or those with red or yellow codes.
Officials in Beijing said on Saturday that purchases of fever, cough and sore throat medicines no longer require registration. The restriction was imposed because authorities believe people are using the drugs to hide their COVID infections.
The authorities of different districts of the capital have announced that people who have tested positive for the virus can be quarantined at home.
When restrictions were eased, some inconsistencies angered people, including the demand for a negative COVID test in some places even as mass testing centers were closed.
It led to long queues at the few remaining testing booths in Beijing and Wuhan.
“Are they stupid or just mean?” asked one social media user. “We should not close the COVID testing stations until we get rid of the COVID testing transition.”
The number of new daily cases fell to 31,824 nationwide on Sunday, officials said, which may be partly due to fewer people being tested. Authorities also reported two new COVID deaths.
“ZERO-PREPARATION TO EXIT COVID”
Xi’s zero-covid policy has had a devastating impact on the world’s second-largest economy and global supply chains.
China maintains that the policy of completely closing its borders to travel is necessary to save lives and prevent the health system from being overwhelmed.
Despite the easing of restrictions, many experts said China was unlikely to begin a significant reopening before March, given the need to boost vaccinations, particularly among its large elderly population.
“While there have been quite a few domestic changes in recent COVID policies, we do not interpret them as China abandoning its zero-covid policy just yet,” Goldman Sachs said in a note on Sunday.
“On the contrary, we see them as clear evidence that the Chinese government is preparing for an exit and, in the meantime, is trying to minimize the economic and social costs of controlling COVID-19. Preparations may take several months, and there are likely to be difficulties along the way.”
Estimates of how many deaths China could see if it returns to a full reopening have ranged from 1.3 million to more than 2 million, although some researchers say the death toll could drop dramatically if vaccinations are focused on.
Officials recently announced they will speed up a COVID vaccine for seniors, but many are reluctant to get the shot.
“Some people have doubts about the safety and effectiveness of the country’s new coronavirus vaccine,” said an article in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, on Sunday.
“Experts say this perception is wrong,” he said, adding that locally produced vaccines are safe.
US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said on Saturday that foreign COVID vaccines have not been approved in China and Xi does not want to change that.
Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard; Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Edited by Tony Munroe, Lincoln Feast, Kirsten Donovan
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