China eases some Covid curbs despite rising cases

time:2023-05-31 01:09:14 source:The New York Times

China has slightly relaxed some of its Covid restrictions even as case numbers rise to their highest levels in months.

Quarantine for close contacts will be cut from seven days in a state facility to five days and three days at home.

Officials will also stop recording secondary contacts - meaning many people will avoid having to quarantine.

The slight easing comes weeks after Xi Jinping was re-instated as party leader for a historic third term.

Mr Xi held his first Covid meeting with his newly elected Standing Committee on Thursday.

China's zero-Covid policy has saved lives in the country of 1.4 billion people but also dealt a punishing blow to the economy and ordinary people's lives.

There is increasing public fatigue over lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Stories of suffering and desperation have also circulated on social media, fuelling many outbursts of civic anger.

China's National Health Commission (NHC) insisted the changes did not amount to "relaxing prevention and control, let alone opening up", but were instead designed to adapt to a changing Covid situation.

The NHC also said it would develop a plan to speed up vaccinations.

On Friday, the changes were announced even as the country grapples with its worst wave of Covid in months.

The cities of Beijing, Guangzhou and Zhengzhou are currently seeing record numbers.

On Thursday, China recorded over 10,500 new Covid cases - the highest daily total since April when China shut down its largest city Shanghai to combat a wave there.

People in China, and analysts watching the country, have been waiting for some indication from the government that strict Zero-Covid measures might be eased.

On the one hand, Beijing is not officially backing down from its commitment to its current strategy, but it has announced a series of measures it has described as "adapting" to the situation rather than "relaxing" the policy.

For Chinese people who have become exhausted by Zero-Covid it doesn't really matter if the government finds the need to save face semantically, as long as the changes are real and that they are.

The moves announced today may not seem like much if you are not living in China but, inside the country, three years into a crisis, with no indication of when or how an off ramp may appear, any steps towards re-opening are steps which are not going backwards.

Ending the punishment for airlines carrying infected passengers will mean more flights, more seats, cheaper inbound tickets, and an end to abrupt Covid-induced cancellations. This is significant.

A reduction of seven days in hotel quarantine plus three days at home to five days plus three is only a small alteration but the expectation is that this could continue to come down at some point in the future.

Again, for a country with an economy being smashed by Zero-Covid, baby steps are better than no steps.

Raising the bar for centralised quarantine inside China will also ease tensions for ordinary people, if only because it provides a glimmer of light at the end of the Covid tunnel.

It is hard to explain to people in other countries just how fed up with Zero-Covid locals have become. They were living through this crisis well before the rest of the world and while other countries have now found a way to move on, they're still stuck with it, as if China has been frozen in a massive 2020 time block.

Despite the small changes however, most restrictions still remain in place. Mr Xi has insisted on sticking to a stringent zero-Covid policy involving lockdowns even as the rest of the world has moved on.

That means in many cities residents have been subject to sudden restrictions on their movement and disruptions to work and schooling.

For example, this week in Guangzhou - the current epicentre of the Covid wave in China - locals in one district were barred from venturing outside and only one member of each household was allowed outside to grocery shop.

Public transport has been suspended while schools and workplaces are also shut down.

In Zhengzhou, another Covid centre at the moment, lockdowns there prompted many workers living at a vast factory owned by Taiwanese iPhone-maker Foxconn to flee the area on foot to escape restrictions.

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