China’s zero-COVID policy is, seemingly, over. Guidelines, referred to colloquially as “The New 10 Points,” issued Wednesday by the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council drastically curtailed restrictions on movement based on COVID status, among other major changes. The issuance of “The New 10 Points” capped a whirlwind two months of contention over the policy, which recently culminated in mass public protests across China calling for its end—and, in at least one case, calling for Xi Jinping’s resignation. At The Washington Post, Christian Shepherd and Lyric Li reported on “The New 10 Points” and the change in China’s approach to pandemic management:
The State Council, China’s cabinet, released a 10-point plan that also said those with less severe infections could quarantine at home rather than in centralized facilities, unless they “volunteer” to go into care. Apartment stairwells or floors would no longer be considered high-risk zones after five consecutive days without any new cases, and residents must be released from these zones in a timely fashion.
Digital health passes, region-specific apps that track movement and testing history, will no longer be required for access to most buildings or public transport. Developed by major Chinese technology firms on behalf of the government, the QR codes generated by the software have been a central part of China’s extensive contact tracing.
[…] Even the official term for the policy of bring infections down to zero — which roughly translates as “dynamic clearing” — has begun to appear less frequently in official statements. It was not mentioned once in either Wednesday’s announcement or the subsequent news conference.
Sun Chunlan, the vice premier who has led the coronavirus response, also omitted the term from an appearance last Wednesday where she declared a “new situation and new mission” underpinning the epidemic control strategy. [Source]
It is unclear why the central government decided to reverse itself. As late as mid-November, state media continued to reaffirm the policy, while censors quashed any criticism of it. Hints of a change began soon after. The central government issued a 20-point “optimization” of COVID rules in late November even as outbreaks across the country surged. It is possible that social unrest triggered the change. Protests at a Zhengzhou Foxconn factory that had earlier seen an exodus of workers during an outbreak preceded broader nationwide protests against the policy. Economic considerations surely played a role as well. At The Wall Street Journal, Keith Zhai and Yang Jie reported that a letter from the founder of Foxconn group may have played a major role in changing the policy, as did the protests:
In the letter to Chinese leaders, Foxconn Technology Group founder Terry Gouwarned that strict Covid controls would threaten China’s central position in global supply chains and demanded more transparency into restrictions on the company’s workers, the people said. Mr. Gou sent the letter a little more than a month ago as Foxconn’s factory in the city of Zhengzhou was rocked by turmoil over Covid restrictions.
Chinese health officials and government advisers seized on Mr. Gou’s letter to bolster the case that the government needed to speed up its efforts to ease its tough Covid-19 controls, people familiar with the matter said. The eruption weeks later of nationwide protests gave policy advisers further ammunition to press the case for relaxing measures, two of the people said.
[…] While China’s leadership didn’t view the protests as a grave political threat to the Communist Party, people familiar with the matter said, some government advisers did use them to continue to press their case for further easing measures. On Wednesday, China issued fresh rules, dropping many of its quarantine and testing requirements and curtailing the ability of local leaders to impose lockdowns. [Source]
Lockdowns were very damaging for China’s economy. If you stop people moving around you also stop a lot of shopping and eating out. This hurts businesses who in turn slash wages or fire people. Retail sales grew just 0.5% in the first 10 months of 2022, down from 8% in 2019. pic.twitter.com/92LnFkyxvR
— James Mayger (@JDMayger) December 8, 2022
People aren’t travelling domestically, much which hurts tourism businesses, and even in cities the restrictions (and fear of infection) were keeping people at home. That may continue for a while – the restrictions may now be gone, but the risk of infection is rising. pic.twitter.com/z4YAGxDj8X
— James Mayger (@JDMayger) December 8, 2022
Liang Wannian, the head of China’s national COVID task force, denied that the new measures mean full-reopening, and it remains to be seen how long the newly relaxed policy lasts. Although there may yet be a soft rhetorical commitment to zero-COVID, The Economist explained how the abandonment of the three main mechanisms China used to contain outbreaks spells the end of the policy:
The first mechanism was mass testing, which aimed to find infections fast. People were shocked to see testing booths being removed from city streets recently. A negative test is no longer required to travel within China. If the new guidelines are followed, only care homes, schools and hospitals would still seek proof of a result. Some cities are even discouraging people from getting tested unless they are in professions such as medical work.
The second mechanism, centralised quarantine, strived to isolate the infected and their close contacts. Until recently these unfortunate souls were dragged off to state-run centres. Buying a self-testing kit would have triggered a call from authorities. Now, though, people with mild symptoms and their close contacts can isolate at home and test themselves. They no longer need to regularly log their location on government apps either.
Lockdowns were the final and perhaps harshest mechanism. They, too, are slowly being lifted. Nomura, a bank, estimates that on December 5th some 452.5m people were affected by various lockdown measures. That is still a big chunk of China’s population (1.4bn), but it is down by 760,000 from the previous week. Large cities are leading the way. Guangzhou, a metropolis in the south, has lifted many restrictions, despite being in the middle of an outbreak. Residential compounds in Beijing, which just weeks ago were putting up steel barriers, are now open. The new rules say that if lockdowns are deemed necessary, they should be imposed on buildings or smaller units, not compounds, neighbourhoods or cities. [Source]
What happens next is unclear. Some analysts fear a wave of COVID infections unprecedented in the pandemic thus far. The former deputy director of China’s CDC said he expected 60 percent of China’s population to be infected on the first wave—which would translate to 840 million new cases. A macroeconomic advisory group’s modeling predicts one million deaths over the coming winter months. The Economist published a more conservative yet still shocking estimate: 680,000 deaths. China has reported only slightly more than 5,000 deaths since the pandemic began. Ruklanthi de Alwis, deputy director for the Centre for Outbreak Preparedness at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore told CNN: “The key risk when countries decide to move away from a zero-Covid policy is really the strain this will exert on the health care system.”
The government hopes to avert that outcome by launching a mass vaccination campaign targeted at the elderly. Caixin reported that officials have been instructed to ensure that 90% of those 80 and older will have had one shot by the end of January. Regulators approved four new vaccines for public use this week and are planning to encourage citizens to receive a fourth booster shot. Only 40.4 percent of people aged 80 and above have received a full three-shot vaccine regimen. The slow pace of vaccinations is attributable to a poorly built vaccine delivery infrastructure, generalized distrust of the vaccines, and some health workers’ reluctance to deliver shots for fear of liability for side effects. Yanzhong Huang, a public health expert at the Council for Foreign Relations, told The Financial Times that seniors’ hesitancy may in part be a product of top leaders’ unwillingness to publicly proclaim their vaccination status: “You don’t have the top leaders themselves setting the example. Many of the former and current politburo standing committee members are elderly. Why couldn’t they roll up their sleeves and show [themselves being jabbed]?”
The sudden shift has thrown many into flux. There has been a 400-fold increase in home test kit sales and a run on medicine in Beijing and Shanghai, with the former reportedly on the verge of running out of fever medication. Not all businesses are easing their own strict COVID policies in the wake of national policy changes. Some factories continue to operate under “closed loop management,” which prevents workers from coming and going freely, while others demand that workers show health codes. A number of offices have moved to online work.
Online reactions were a mix of joy and trepidation at what comes next, reported Frances Mao of the BBC:
“Finally! I will no longer worry about getting infected or being taken away as a close contact,” one person wrote on Chinese social media.
Another said: “Can anyone explain to me what’s happening? Why is the change all of a sudden and so major?”
[…] Some users online have questioned the accelerated opening-up – “The medical system will be overwhelmed and many elderly would be infected. It [a major wave of infections] begins now,” one user wrote. [Source]