China’s scaling back of its zero-Covid regime has left its population reeling. Some are embracing their new freedoms, while others are struggling to overcome their fears of being infected after three years of tough restrictions.
Frustration at protracted lockdowns and mass testing boiled over in late November into widespread protests, the biggest show of public discontent in decades.
The government did not officially acknowledge the protests, but in the strongest sign so far that it is rolling back its long-running zero-Covid policy, the national health commission updated its restrictions on Wednesday, allowing infected people with mild symptoms to quarantine at home, and dropping the need for testing and health status checks on mobile apps for a variety of activities including travelling around the country.
Many people appear unaccustomed to the new situation and are adopting a “wait and see” mentality because they are worried about becoming infected. Amid reports of panic buying of fever medicine, the financial news outlet Yicai cited third-party data showing the average daily sales volume of home test kits had risen more than 400 times from November figures. The government has reassured the public that there is no need to stock up on medicine.
Domestic ticket sales for domestic tourist and leisure spots have soared since Wednesday, according to state media, and queues have begun to form at train stations again. Road traffic levels are still down on pre-Covid levels, however, and customers have not rushed back to restaurants and other public venues.
“The changes are happening too fast, my brain can’t cope,” said a lawyer on the WeChat social media platform.
“I know Covid is not so scary now, but it is still contagious,” said a post on the Sina Weibo platform. “The fear brought to our heart cannot be easily dissipated.”
Hu Xijin, a retired editor formerly with the hawkish Global Times, encouraged people to face the weakened virus with courage and to return to their normal lives.
“The people won’t be blocked at home any more. They need to work, make and spend money,” he said in a video posted on Weibo. “We should try our best not to get infected, but there is no need to be afraid of the weakened virus … If I get infected I’ll face it with courage and I hope everyone will be the same, too.”
While adopting more relaxed controls, some cities have urged residents to remain vigilant and many businesses have chosen to retain restrictions until a clearer picture emerges of how workplaces will be affected by the easing of stringent measures.
Shanghai, which endured one of the country’s longest and harshest lockdowns, dropped the need for Covid tests to enter restaurants or entertainment venues on Thursday.
Health experts have said there could be a sharp rise in infections and deaths in a subsequent wave, given low vaccination rates among elderly people, the lack of more effective foreign vaccines and low natural immunity from the lack of exposure to the virus.
China “may have to pay for its procrastination in embracing a ‘living with Covid’ approach,” the financial services group Nomura said on Thursday. Infection rates in are only around 0.13%, “far from the level needed for herd immunity”, it said.
Feng Zijian, a former official at China’s Center for Disease Control, told the China Youth Daily that up to 60% of the population could be infected in the first large-scale wave before stabilising. “Ultimately, around 80% to 90% of people will be infected,” he said.
The country would probably face a large-scale outbreak in the month or two, the state-owned magazine China Newsweek cited health experts as saying on Thursday.
China reported 21,165 new Covid infections on 7 December, down from the previous day and below a peak of 40,052 local cases on 27 November. Cases have been trending lower recently as authorities across China drop testing requirements.
The country’s tally of 5,235 Covid-related deaths is a tiny fraction of its population of 1.4 billion, and extremely low by global standards. Some experts have said the toll could rise above 1.5 million if restrictions are dropped too hastily.
China observers say they expect the authorities may reimpose some degree of restrictions again if cases surge sharply, but that they are likely to be smaller in scale and more localised to avoid angering the public.
Reuters contributed to this report