World

Relief and anxiety as major Chinese cities ease COVID restrictions


  • The loosening comes after a week of historic protests
  • The restrictions hit the world’s second-largest economy
  • Easing of measures across the country is expected soon – sources

BEIJING, Dec 2 (Reuters) – Further easing of COVID-19 testing requirements and quarantine rules in some Chinese cities was met with a mix of relief and anxiety on Friday as hundreds of millions await an expected change in national virus policies after mass social unrest.

The looser measures were welcomed by workers frustrated by three years of economically damaging restrictions, but rattled others who suddenly felt more exposed to a disease that authorities had consistently described as deadly until this week.

The elderly, many of whom have not yet been vaccinated, feel most vulnerable.

Shi Wei, a Beijing resident suffering from lymphatic cancer, spends most of his time in isolation, but is still worried about contracting COVID and passing it on to his 80-year-old mother as she goes out for hospital treatment at every three weeks.

“I can only pray that God will protect me,” he said.

China’s policies against COVID have stifled everything from domestic consumption to factory output and global supply chains and caused severe mental stress to hundreds of millions of people.

Anger against the world’s hardest curbs is fueled dozens of protests in more than 20 cities in recent days in a show of civil disobedience unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

Asked about the protests in an interview with French television on Friday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the United States supported “the freedom of the demonstrators to express themselves and show their frustration”.

Less than 24 hours after people clashed with white-suited riot police in Guangzhou on Tuesday, a sprawling manufacturing hub north of Hong Kong, the city lifted lockdowns in at least seven of its districts.

“We can finally slowly return to our normal lives,” said Lily, 41, who works for a restaurant chain in Guangzhou that was allowed to reopen on Thursday.

Lockout disruptions over the past few years have led to a 30 percent drop in revenue, she said.

“The community couldn’t take it anymore and everyone wanted us to reopen… The Guangzhou government probably heard what we wanted and thought it was about time,” Lilly said.

Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who is leading the COVID effort, said this week that the virus’s ability to cause disease is weakening, a message that is consistent with what health officials around the world have been saying for more than a year.

While government officials in the cities that lifted the lockdowns did not mention the protests in their announcements, national health officials said China would respond to “urgent concerns” expressed by the public.

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Some communities are now requiring less frequent testing and allowing close contacts of infected people to be quarantined at home, according to state media, measures expected to be rolled out across the country in the coming days.

China is ready to announce a national reduction in the frequency of mass testing and regular nucleic acid testing, as well as allow positive cases and close contacts to self-isolate at home under certain conditions, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Chengdu and Tianjin, among China’s biggest cities, announced they would not require subway users to show negative COVID tests from Friday, another easing of restrictions imposed to stop the transmission of the virus in crowded public places.

Some communities in Beijing and elsewhere have already allowed close contacts of people carrying the virus to be quarantined at home, while some shopping malls in the capital reopened from Thursday.

A residential community in eastern Beijing on Friday sent out a notice to say that those without “any social activities,” such as the homebound elderly and infants, no longer needed to be tested regularly.

Several testing booths in the area have stopped working and the number of people being tested has dropped by up to 30%, an official said. However, the nearby park remained closed and restaurants and cafes only sold takeout.

Earlier in the year, entire communities were locked down, sometimes for weeks, even after just one positive case, with people stuck indoors losing income, having poor access to basic needs and struggling to cope with isolation.

Some areas in Guangzhou have resumed dining services and residents are no longer required to present negative PCR tests to enter, state media reported.

The city also lifted the rule that only people who tested negative for COVID could buy over-the-counter fever medicine, a policy aimed at preventing people with COVID from hiding their illness.

In nearby Shenzhen, some people will be allowed to self-quarantine at home. About 1,000km to the west, in Chongqing, a range of businesses from barbershops to gyms were allowed to reopen.

But many communities designated as high-risk by various cities remain under lockdown, and many people still have to take daily tests.

“The high spirits are not universal,” said a Guangzhou-based diplomat. “While many people are enjoying their newfound freedom, it’s worth noting that there are still hundreds of high-risk areas that are locked down across the city.”

Additional reporting by Eduardo Baptista, Albee Zhang, Ryan Woo and editorial staff in Beijing; Written by Marius Zachariah and John Geddy; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsell

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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