© Reuters. Pandemic prevention workers in protective suits get ready to enter an apartment building that went into lockdown as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreaks continue in Beijing, December 2, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
By Martin Quin Pollard and David Kirton
BEIJING (Reuters) -Some communities in Chinese cities where COVID-19 is still spreading are easing off on testing requirements and quarantine rules ahead of an expected shift in virus policies nationwide after widespread social unrest.
The uneven relaxation of COVID restrictions is, however, fuelling fear among some residents who suddenly feel more exposed to a disease authorities had consistently described as deadly until this week.
Pharmacies in Beijing say purchases of N95 masks, which offer a much higher degree of protection than the single-use surgical type, have gone up this week. Some people wearing N95s on Friday said they got them from their employers.
Such cautious behaviour bodes ill for consumer-facing businesses and factories in large COVID-hit cities whose workers are hoping to stay virus-free at least until they return to their families in the countryside for the Lunar New Year.
The elderly, many of whom are still unvaccinated, feel the most vulnerable.
Shi Wei, a Beijing resident suffering from lymphatic cancer, spends most of his time isolating, but still worries about getting COVID and giving it to his 80-year-old mother as he goes out for hospital treatment every three weeks.
“I can only pray God protects me,” he said.
China’s COVID policies have hammered its economy, choking everything from domestic consumption, to factory output, to global supply chains, and causing severe mental stress for hundreds of millions of people.
Anger over the world’s toughest curbs fuelled dozens of protests in more than 20 cities in recent days in a show of civil disobedience unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
Less than 24 hours after people clashed with white hazmat-suited riot police in Guangzhou, a sprawling manufacturing hub just north of Hong Kong, the city lifted lockdowns in at least seven of its districts. Some communities now require less frequent testing and are allowing close contacts of infected people to quarantine at home, according to state media.
But the uneven easing of rules around the city is causing other kinds of trouble for its residents.
“I am leaving on holiday tomorrow and had to search for a place to get a COVID test because I still need a 48 hour code to get to the airport but most of the testing stations have been removed,” said a diplomat at a foreign consulate in Guangzhou.
Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees COVID efforts, said this week the ability of the virus to cause disease was weakening – a message that aligns with what health authorities around the world have said for more than a year.
While government authorities in cities that have lifted lockdowns did not mention the protests in their announcements, national health officials have said China will address the “urgent concerns” expressed by the public.
China is set to announce nationwide easing of quarantine and testing requirements, sources told Reuters, in what many hope would make the implementation more uniform.
The measures include a reduction in the use of mass testing and regular nucleic acid tests as well as moves to allow positive cases and close contacts to isolate at home under certain conditions, the sources familiar with the matter said.
On the ground, however, some communities in Beijing and elsewhere have already allowed close contacts of people carrying the virus to quarantine at home, while some shopping malls in the capital have reopened from Thursday.
One residential community in east Beijing on Friday sent a notice to say those who have “no social activities,” such as homebound elderly and infants, no longer need to get tested regularly “to reduce the risk of crowding.”
Several testing booths in the area have stopped operating and the numbers of those getting tested have dropped 20-30%, a testing staff member said. Still, the park nearby remained closed, while restaurants and cafes only sold takeaway.
Earlier this year, entire communities were locked down, sometimes for weeks, after even just one positive case, with people stuck indoors losing income, having poor access to basic necessities, and struggling to cope mentally with the isolation.
Some areas in Guangzhou resumed dine-in services, and residents are no longer asked to present negative PCR tests to enter, state media reported.
In nearby Shenzhen, some people will be allowed to quarantine at home. About a thousand kilometres to the west, in Chongqing, a wide range of businesses from barber shops to gyms were allowed to resume this week.
In Chengdu, in Sichuan province, passengers no longer needed negative test results to take the bus or subway. In Jincheng, which is half way from Beijing to Shanghai, people can now enter karaoke venues, but still cannot dine inside restaurants.
At the same time, many communities in areas designated as high risk by various cities remain under lockdown and many people are still required to undergo daily tests.
“The uplifted mood isn’t universal,” the Guangzhou-based diplomat said. “Although a lot of people are enjoying new-found freedom, it’s worth noting that there are still hundreds of high-risk zones that are locked down throughout the city.”