The Chinese government on Wednesday unveiled a broad easing of its strict “zero Covid” policy, after an extraordinary outburst of discontent in mass street protests a week ago.
The changes do not dismantle the policy, but they represent a loosening of measures that have dragged down the economy by disrupting daily life for hundreds of millions of people, forcing many small businesses to close and sending youth unemployment to a record high.
Here are the highlights from the announcement.
The new rules move China away from the use of P.C.R. tests and digital passes used to indicated possible exposure to the virus. Mass testing will no longer be conducted in areas that are not considered “high risk,” a designation for regions that have positive cases. The high-risk category is now limited to buildings, units, floors or households, rather than encompassing neighborhoods.
P.C.R. tests and health codes will no longer be checked for travel between regions in China.
Hospitalization and Quarantine
In a departure from the unpopular rule that forced many infected people to stay in makeshift quarantine facilities and hospitals, those who are infected with mild symptoms are now free to isolate at home. Close contacts are also allowed to quarantine at home, and will be released with a negative test on the fifth day.
The authorities had adjusted some of these rules in early November, when they lifted stay-at-home orders for contacts of close contacts, which left tens of millions of people confined to their homes.
The measures circumscribe the power of local officials to impose lockdowns and ensure they are lifted quickly. Local authorities may still lock down buildings in the event that a positive case is detected, but they cannot restrict movement and suspend business operations in regions outside a specified “high risk” designation. For “high-risk” areas, the guidelines mandate lockdowns to be lifted if no new positive cases are detected for five consecutive days.
In locked down areas, authorities are strictly prevented from blocking fire escapes and public exits, a possible concession to recent protesters. Blocked exits were widely discussed as a principle cause of excess deaths during a building fire in the western region of Xinjiang, a disaster that laid the groundwork for mass unrest in over two dozens cities last week.
The government reiterated its pledge to do more to increase the vaccination rate of older people. But the new rules left unanswered questions about how officials will try to contain the inevitable wave of infections. The Communist Party has accelerated its vaccination campaign in recent days by approving several new Chinese-made vaccines and publishing interviews with experts who try to allay fears of the health risks from getting a shot.
But those defenses may not come in time. Even if China moves swiftly to boost its vulnerable populations, like older adults, it needs a few months for the protection to kick in, said Siddharth Sridhar, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. China’s domestic vaccines also are typically weaker than shots based on the newer mRNA technology, and experts generally agree that a third shot is necessary to prevent severe illness.
In the meantime, nonmedical interventions, including social distancing, quarantine and home isolation, are not enough to prevent large scale outbreaks, he said.
“It’s fine to have a major outbreak at some point, if you’re well prepared,” Dr. Sridhar said.
For China, this would mean booster shots for the elderly, enough Covid pills like Paxlovid stockpiled in hospitals around the country to help deal with severe Covid cases and enough hospital beds with ventilators.
“If they are considering a pivot, they need to bolster their defenses because a storm is coming,” Dr. Sridhar said.
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