The Chinese capital of Beijing reported 5,006 cases for Wednesday, a record, as it struggles to contain the worst ever outbreak to hit the country’s political and cultural center amid public anger at the punishing Covid Zero regime.
The surge comes at a critical moment for leaders, who have to decide whether to tolerate some spread of the virus or revert to strict Covid Zero curbs to halt the outbreak at the expense of the economy. While many districts are largely at a standstill through creeping curbs and with people afraid to go out, officials have refrained from declaring mass lockdowns or testing.
The infections are still a relatively small number for a city of 22 million, but they’ve been enough to send panic through the capital of a country that’s largely kept the virus out for nearly three years. Beijingers have hunkered down, fearful not just of the virus but of getting identified as a close contact and sent to government isolation facilities where conditions are poor.
Across China, new Covid infections numbered 34,942 for Wednesday, coming slightly off a peak of 38,808 registered over the weekend. While case numbers may be naturally leveling off, the lowered count may also stem from recent moves to exempt those who stay at home for long periods of time, like children and the elderly, from frequent testing.
Signs that China is taking a softer stance on Covid control have emerged in media and official rhetoric. In a meeting Wednesday with experts, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan pledged to “optimize” Covid control through “small but continued steps,” and did not use the phrase “dynamic Covid Zero.”
Across China, cities facing outbreaks have moved away from broad rules. Guangzhou on Wednesday ended lockdown measures in all but one of its 11 districts. Nevertheless, restrictions remained in many high-risk areas, leaving in place a complex web of rules for locals to navigate. Guangdong province reported 7,252 cases for Wednesday, while western metropolis Chongqing recorded 6,584.
The softening comes as public discontent with the strict rules mount, ranging from residents fighting back against lockdown measures to hundreds gathering in street protests earlier this week. In Beijing, people in some housing compounds have banded together to stop officials from sealing off their residences or sending them to quarantine camps.
With the surging numbers of infected, the capital is seeing its makeshift hospitals for mild Covid patients and those for treating more severe ones near capacity, which has also allowed more people to isolate at home by default.
State media has also started to downplay Covid’s severity, saying the Omicron variant has evolved to be far less virulent, citing scientific studies and medical experts.
Meanwhile, Beijing will allow some virus-infected people to isolate at home, starting with residents of its most-populous district, a significant shift that reflects the pressure officials are under from a record outbreak and public opposition to Covid Zero.
Low-risk patients can do home isolation for a week if they choose, people familiar with the plans said, dialing back a nationwide policy that has seen everyone with Covid sent to government quarantine sites regardless of severity, to halt transmission chains.
The shift has already begun in Chaoyang district—home to some 3.5 million people as well as foreign embassies and company offices—and it will act as an example for other districts to follow, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing an order that’s not yet public.
Tight resources and a need to prevent social unrest are behind the shift, according to the people. Those who take part must sign a letter committing to not going outside their homes during the quarantine period, and their doors will be fitted with a magnetized sensor that sends an alert to the authorities when it’s opened, one of the people said.
Those allowed to home quarantine include people with special physical or living conditions, such as pregnant women, one of the people said, as well as those strongly resistant to going into government-run isolation, according to the people.
Calls to the Beijing city government and its health commission weren’t answered.
The move, which diminishes the level of control officials have over infected people, comes as Beijing experiences its largest outbreak of the pandemic, with more than 5,000 cases reported on Wednesday. The temporary quarantine centers built to house infected people are running out of capacity, the people said.
The shift also follows protests across China at the weekend against the country’s strict approach to containing the virus, known as Covid Zero.
China has signaled a transition away from the harshest Covid curbs in recent days, re-emphasizing a revised playbook that relies more on targeted measures to control the virus than the sweeping lockdowns and blanket testing regimes that have become the norm over the past three years. That approach, which worked in snuffing out Wuhan’s initial outbreak, has become harder to maintain since the arrival of the more infectious Omicron variant and is taking an increasing toll on the world’s second-largest economy.
Rhetoric from top government and health officials indicates they are looking to prepare the Chinese population for wider spread and a potential exit from Covid Zero. They are prioritizing bolstering lagging vaccination rates among the elderly, one of the biggest roadblocks on the country’s reopening path. China is also considering rolling out a fourth vaccine dose, Bloomberg News reported Wednesday.
Outgoing Vice Premier Sun Chunlan—the leader that besides President Xi Jinping has been most closely associated with Covid Zero—struck an altered tone at a meeting with the NHC and other health experts in Beijing on Wednesday.
“As the Omicron variant becomes less pathogenic, more people get vaccinated and our experience in Covid prevention accumulates, our fight against the pandemic is at a new stage and it comes with new tasks,” she said.
Fear of being transported to what many view as quarantine camps has seen Beijing’s streets deserted as the outbreak intensified. Conditions at the sites, often constructed hastily with pre-fab buildings, shipping containers and even tents, can be very poor. Close contacts of people infected with Covid are also required to go into government facilities, though some cities have been easing that rule this week.
Southern Guangdong province said earlier this week that close contacts that meet certain requirements can remain at home instead of going to centralized isolation facilities. Its capital, the manufacturing hub Guangzhou, later replaced lockdowns in four districts with more targeted restrictions, adding to cautious optimism China’s mindset around Covid has turned a corner. With assistance from Dong Lyu/Bloomberg.
Image credits: Bloomberg