China loosens grip on Covid exactly three years after first-ever case

Demonstrators hold blank signs during a protest in Beijing on November 27, 2022.

EXACTLY three years since the first documented coronavirus patient developed symptoms in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the country that fought the pathogen first and most fiercely is finally pivoting away from efforts to quash the pandemic.

The December 1 anniversary of the first Covid infection to be recorded in scientific literature comes as China, under pressure from surging cases and public anger at its punishing regime, is starting to chart a path towards rejoining the rest of the world in living with the virus.

Residents leaving an area with communities in lockdown line up for Covid tests, in Beijing, on November 30, 2022.

‘New phase’

WHILE the central Chinese leadership has remained characteristically opaque on its intentions, the signs are unmistakable. Authorities have started downplaying the severity of infections, while avoiding “dynamic Covid Zero,” a term that refers to wiping out the virus.

China’s Covid czar described the country as being in a “new phase” of the pandemic.

In the capital of Beijing, some low-risk patients are being allowed to isolate at home—allowing them to avoid the controversial quarantine camps that have been a bedrock of China’s playbook since the Wuhan outbreak—while the government is putting more effort into bolstering vaccination rates among the elderly and raising booster coverage.

State-backed media, which have spent years demonizing the virus and showcasing the devastation and death toll in Western countries, are now playing up stories of Covid-19 survivors in a bid to reassure the same people they’ve frightened.

The Global Times tabloid ran an article Thursday morning citing Chinese experts that people don’t need to panic over omicron, as it’s much less deadly.

“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,” outgoing Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said at a meeting with the National Health Commission and health experts in Beijing.

Takin’ it to the streets

THE pivot has been accelerated by widespread social unrest, after thousands of citizens took to the streets last weekend to protest frequent lockdowns and disruptions to normal life. Smaller conflicts, of residents refusing to be locked down or be carted off to the isolation camps that have been mandatory for any infected person, also proliferated.

Among investors battered by the hit that Covid Zero has had on the world’s second-largest economy, the softer signs and incremental changes have been enough for euphoria, sparking the best monthly rally in Hong Kong-listed Chinese stocks in November since 2003.

Still, it’ll be a long process before life in China draws closer to the rest of the world, not to mention reverts to pre-pandemic norms. Millions of people are still subject to a web of restrictions right now, with a negative PCR test needed for entry into supermarkets and other everyday public venues, while a ubiquitous surveillance system identifies those at high-risk immediately.

International travel, meanwhile, is still virtually non-existent for foreigners and onerous for locals, with at least five days quarantine in a centralized facility required.

Businesses are struggling with supply chains that have been slowed, if not halted, by logistical snarls, Covid curbs, and infection spread among workers, forcing a rethink of their reliance on Chinese production hubs.

Potential risks

THEN there are the very real health risks of China letting the virus spread through its population like elsewhere.

Its elderly people are under-vaccinated, while health-care facilities outside of major cities are porous and insufficient to deal with critical Covid cases. That means that the relaxations being seen in developed places like Beijing and Guangzhou are unlikely to be rolled out to rural, poorer areas for some time.

Having held up its low death toll as the chief justification for the Covid Zero policy for years, President Xi Jinping will also be loathe to see widespread fatalities along with reopening. If China can perform like Singapore or South Korea in minimizing deaths through vaccination, it’ll still have to endure hundreds of thousands of lost lives.

The unknowns

ANOTHER unknown is how its vast population will react to the pivot. Even as some took to the streets in unhappiness over the policy, there remains substantial support among ordinary people for Covid Zero, especially as fear of infection is deeply rooted.

The path that now lies ahead for China to reach a post-pandemic normal will be tortuous and long. Three years after Chinese doctors officially recorded a mysterious pneumonia they had no name for, the country has at least taken the first steps.

Image credits: Bloomberg



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