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China is easing its strict zero COVID policy

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The Chinese Government has announced a rapid relaxation of its hardline COVID containment policies.

The changes include a shift to home quarantine (instead of in a facility), fewer social restrictions and less testing.

It comes after protests over the Government’s policies. It has been welcomed by some, but has also prompted fears of a large outbreak that could overwhelm the health system.

Here’s the latest.

Background

China has maintained strict controls since the pandemic began in early 2020. This has included harsh lockdowns and forced quarantine in medical facilities for COVID-positive patients and close contacts.

The Government has maintained what it has called a “dynamic zero COVID” policy despite public protests and a warning from the Director General of the World Health Organisation earlier this year that it was “not sustainable”.

Change in policy

Last week, the Government announced a series of policy shifts which state media described as “a more science-based and targeted” approach. The Government called on local authorities (who set their own specific COVID measures) to end “excessive” measures.

The changes, which have already been implemented in many major cities, include an end to mandatory PCR tests, a shift to home quarantine, and reduced restrictions on travel and activity. International travel is expected to also resume soon.

Reaction

While some residents have celebrated the changes, others have expressed concern about the rapid spread of the virus and a return to regular activity has so far been slow.

The reduction in testing has also led to a sharp drop in officially reported cases, leading to a lack of transparency about how many cases and deaths have occurred. Official public messaging, which has previously emphasised the dangers of COVID, is now emphasising the “mild” nature of the Omicron variant.

Health system

There are concerns about the potential for rapid spread to overwhelm China’s health system. A leading Chinese health expert warned the system would be “visibly affected”.

Modelling by The Economist projects hundreds of thousands of deaths and hospitalisations will overwhelm ICU capacity.

The potential for spread is heightened by the fact China is heading into winter and a period of busy travel next month due to the Lunar New Year. The WHO has warned of a “very tough” period.

Vaccines

A factor which is contributing to this concern is China’s relatively low rates of vaccination among its elderly population.

The Government has announced a new drive to boost elderly vaccination rates including setting up new vaccination centres.

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