China is taking a firm step away from a strict “zero-Covid” approach after mass protests

China on Wednesday announced it would be lifting some of its toughest rules to contain Covid-19, a major step away from a strategy that has restricted daily life for nearly three years and sparked rare nationwide protests in recent weeks.

People with mild or asymptomatic coronavirus cases can self-isolate at home, health officials say, while strict testing requirements for some public places are lifted.

The move represents a dramatic loosening of the “zero-COVID” approach that has made China a stranger among the world’s top economies, helping to contain cases but imposing tight controls on the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It came as protesters in cities across the country called for an end to the restrictions, a rare challenge to the ruling Communist Party and President Xi Jinping.

Officials have defended the policy as necessary to save lives in a country where a fragile health system could be overwhelmed by an epidemic spiraling out of control, and cited China’s low death toll as a testament to the superiority of the Communist Party’s rule. But they had already begun easing restrictions before protests began late last month, and on Nov. 11 announced 20 “streamlining” measures aimed at minimizing the impact on the economy and society.

The protest was the largest display of public unrest China had seen in decades and was swiftly crushed by security forces. But local officials have since eased the lockdown further and tested conditions to deal with frustration over restrictions that have created an atmosphere of fear and damaged the world’s second-largest economy.

Social media users expressed relief but ambivalence about Wednesday’s announcement.

“To be honest, I don’t think there’s anything that makes me happy. I can’t feel anything. It’s a mix,” one person commented on Weibo, a popular social media platform similar to Twitter. “This virus is hard to prevent and from now on I have to take care of myself.”

The National Health Commission said early Wednesday those self-isolating at home would be subject to health monitoring and released after testing negative on days six and seven. Anyone whose condition worsens “will be transferred to a designated hospital in a timely manner for treatment,” said a statement, detailing the 10 new measures.

Previously, people who tested positive for the virus were sent to a central quarantine facility regardless of the severity of their symptoms. This facility will remain available for people who do not wish to self-isolate at home.

The commission also said proof of a negative PCR test and a green “health code” displayed on a smartphone app would no longer be required to travel between provinces or enter most public places, with the exception of places such as nursing homes, medical facilities, day care. facilities and schools. Previously, many cities required a daily negative test result to enter a shopping center or use public transportation.

The statement from the National Health Commission made no mention of the protests or the official end to the zero-Covid policy. But it prohibits blocking emergency exits during the lockdown which protesters say contributed to the death toll in an apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi on Nov. 24. (Officials deny the accusations.)

Other measures announced on Wednesday included the lifting of restrictions on the sale of cold medicine, which previously required name registration to eradicate potential infections. The ban will be limited for five consecutive days if no new infections are detected and must be strictly targeted.

Echoing earlier statements by senior officials, the National Health Commission found that the new Omicron variant is weaker but more transmissible than earlier variants of the virus. He also stressed the importance of vaccinating China’s aging population, whose relative under-vaccination is one of the country’s biggest obstacles in its transition to “living with the virus”.

While still small by global standards, China is reporting an increasing number of cases amid the outbreak caused by omicron. The National Health Commission reported on Wednesday that there were 25,115 new infections nationwide, more than 80 percent of them asymptomatic.

The challenge for Chinese officials now is to prepare the public for a possible infection with the virus after years of warnings of its death. The hashtag “pharmacist explains in detail how to treat mild omicron symptoms” trended this week on Weibo, which is tightly controlled by online censors.

Despite the easing of restrictions, the possibility of an explosion in cases means the pandemic will continue to escalate in the country where the virus was first detected in late 2019.

“Free?” said one Weibo user on Wednesday. “In the last three years, between the ages of 20 and 23, only I know what I lost.”

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