Cities across China further unwound Covid restrictions Friday, loosening testing and quarantine rules in the wake of nationwide protests calling for an end to lockdowns and greater political freedoms.
Anger and frustration with China’s hardline pandemic response spilled onto the streets last weekend in widespread demonstrations not seen in decades.
China’s vast security apparatus has moved swiftly to smother the protests, deploying a heavy police presence, and boosting online censorship and surveillance of the population.
A number of cities have also begun loosening Covid restrictions, such as moving away from daily mass testing requirements — a tedious mainstay of life under Beijing’s stringent zero-Covid policy.
But sporadic localised clashes have continued to flare up.
Social media footage posted Thursday night and geolocated by AFP showed dozens of people clashing with health workers in white hazmat suits outside a middle school in Yicheng, in central China’s Hubei province.
The author of the post said people in the video were parents of students who had tested positive for the virus and had been taken to central quarantine.
In one video, parents are seen kneeling in front of the school gate, pleading to take their children home, and another video showed at least a dozen police officers at the scene.
– Home quarantine? –
Signs have emerged of a possible shift in the policy of sending positive cases to central quarantine.
An analysis by state-run newspaper People’s Daily on Friday quoted a number of health experts supporting local government moves to allow positive cases to quarantine at home, which would be a marked departure from current rules.
When called on Friday, some officials from local communities in the Chaoyang district of Beijing said that people who tested positive there would no longer have to go to central quarantine.
Authorities in the southern factory hub of Dongguan on Thursday said that those who meet “specific conditions” should be allowed to quarantine at home. They did not specify what those conditions would be.
And the southern tech hub of Shenzhen on Wednesday rolled out a similar policy.
Central government officials have signalled that a broader relaxation of zero-Covid policy could be in the works.
Speaking at the National Health Commission Wednesday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said the Omicron variant was weakening and vaccination rates were improving, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
A central figure behind Beijing’s pandemic response, Sun said this “new situation” required “new tasks”.
She made no mention of zero-Covid in those remarks or in another meeting on Thursday, suggesting the approach, which has disrupted the economy and daily life, might soon be relaxed.
– Testing loosens up –
As of Friday, the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu will no longer require a recent negative test result to enter public places or ride the metro, instead only demanding a green health code confirming people have not travelled to a “high risk” area.
In Beijing, health authorities Thursday called on hospitals not to deny treatment to people without a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours.
In January, a pregnant woman in the city of Xi’an miscarried after being refused hospital entry for not having a PCR test result.
China has seen a string of deaths after treatment was delayed by Covid restrictions, including the recent death of a four-month-old baby who was stuck in quarantine with her father.
Those cases became a rallying cry during the protests, with a viral post listing the names of those who died because of alleged negligence linked to the pandemic response.
Many other cities with virus outbreaks are allowing restaurants, shopping malls and even schools to reopen, in a clear departure from previous tough lockdown rules.
In northwestern Urumqi, where a fire that killed ten people spurred anti-lockdown protests, authorities announced Friday that supermarkets, hotels, restaurants, and ski resorts would gradually be opened.
The city of over four million endured one of China’s longest lockdowns, with some areas shut in early August.