China gives up zero covid policy after social protests | International

Sanitary workers, this Wednesday on a street in Beijing.
Sanitary workers, this Wednesday on a street in Beijing.NOEL CELIS (AFP)

It is surprising to see live, almost minute by minute, how China dismantles at dizzying speed the bricks that make up the strong anti-pandemic wall that the country had built to fight the coronavirus for the last three years. Barely 11 days after the protests that shook the streets of more than 20 cities in the Asian giant, Beijing has given unequivocal signs this Wednesday that the harsh policy of covid zero has died or, at least, is officially touched to death. .

The State Council, the equivalent of the Chinese Executive, has approved a decalogue of relaxation measures that will allow, among other things, those infected with covid to pass the disease at home —and not necessarily in quarantine centers, as until now—as long as they are mild cases. In addition, citizens should be allowed to purchase antigen tests (in order to self-detect covid) and common medications to treat the symptoms of the disease, such as antipyretics, without restrictions. In short: China is taking steps towards coexistence with the virus, in the same way that many of the countries in the world did long before.

The battery of provisions has been joined by a perhaps even more obvious signal: the zero covid policy is not mentioned as such in the official reading of the meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee, the second echelon of command in the Chinese Communist Party , held on Tuesday under the baton of the country’s secretary-general and president, Xi Jinping. In the text about the meeting, released by the official Xinhua news agency on Wednesday, only talks about “better coordination” and “optimizing” the control and prevention of the epidemic. The omission, clearly deliberate, is equivalent to saying that the party has decided to turn the page and look forward. The Politburo underlines that 2023 will be a year of search for “stability” and “progress” in the economic sphere, at a time when most analysts predict this year a meager growth of less than 4% for China.

The new measures adopted by the Council of State, which will be applied throughout the country, follow the steps already advanced in recent days in cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, where the protests were most felt and responses were expedited most quickly. The Executive advocates the reduction of massive and daily testing with PCR tests, a central part of the zero covid system, and calls for the use of antigen tests to be promoted; He adds that the negative result of PCR tests should be stopped at the entrances to most public complexes —except in the case of special places, such as medical institutions, nurseries and schools— and also signs what is close to the certificate of death of the sophisticated and ubiquitous system of QR codes that until now anyone had to scan at the door of any establishment, housing complex or means of public transport, to facilitate its tracking in case of contagion and certify that it was free of coronavirus.

Mobilization to vaccinate

In addition, it calls for the cooperation of “the whole of society to participate in the mobilization of vaccination of the elderly,” according to the statement released this Wednesday, perhaps the real weak point of China in the face of a reopening. And schools are asked to carry out their educational activities in person as normal if they are not affected by the covid and, in the event of an epidemic, to define “precisely the risk areas”, but guaranteeing normality outside of those affected areas. , in what seems like a call to prepare plans to avoid systematic and widespread closures of schools.

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The turnaround is surprising to many Chinese after so long suffering a constant bombardment warning of the danger of the virus and its pernicious short- and long-term effects. The shift in strategy has been well accompanied by new information elements, conveniently disseminated through the propaganda organs, which underline the low lethality of the omicron variant. Meanwhile, the country is going through its worst wave of infections since the start of the pandemic and many are shocked to discover that they know people with covid directly, something really extravagant until very recently.

“In just 24 hours everything has changed,” says a Beijing resident, currently self-isolating at home after testing positive for antigens. “Suddenly, omicron has gone from being a wolf to becoming a little sheep [y] there are many experts who say that [esta variante] it’s no big deal”. The change is so abrupt and sudden that some even joke that it seems that the official strategy is for everyone to catch it all at once and as soon as possible.

In Beijing, the official infected figures are around 4,000 cases, but with sales of antigen tests skyrocketing, it is assumed that the real data is probably much higher. These days, a common message between friends and acquaintances is “Take care”. Many prefer not even to leave the house. In Beijing, a good number of shops and schools remain closed. The streets look half throttle. The atmosphere is quite reminiscent of that Europe that was trying to leave the pandemic behind about a year ago.

“Covid zero is officially dead, it’s over in China,” Andy Chen, a Shanghai-based analyst at Trivium China, comments on the Xinran phone, acknowledging that everything is moving “faster than expected.” In his opinion, the protests have accelerated the exit process. But they have not been the only cause. There are other reasons, such as the enormous cost of maintaining centralized quarantines for all those infected or Xi Jinping’s recent trips abroad, who had not left the country until September 2022. This analyst, in any case, adds that it is of a “chaotic and disorderly exit strategy”. And it augurs a few months of confusing implementation, of tug of war and in which the hospital system may be saturated.

One of the great unknowns is what will happen when the pandemic hits a country that has been almost sealed to date. An estimate by Wigram Capital Advisors, cited by Financial Times, speaks of a possible unprecedented winter wave that could cause nearly 20,000 daily deaths by March, after the displacements of the Chinese New Year holidays. China has registered just over 5,000 deaths from covid to date, according to official figures.

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