China’s top zero-Covid enforcer says the fight against the virus has entered a “new stage” while state media have downplayed its risks, bolstering expectations that Beijing is easing its anti-pandemic approach just days after a wave of unrest.

Vice-premier Sun Chunlan said on Wednesday that the Omicron variant was becoming “less pathogenic” and pointed to higher vaccination rates, even as China recorded tens of thousands of new cases from its biggest outbreak.

Sun did not mention the term “dynamic zero-Covid”, a policy that has for nearly three years sought to eliminate all infections through mass testing, quarantine and lockdowns.

While the government has stopped short of any explicit policy change, Sun’s comments — which were followed by softer language about the virus in state media on Thursday — build on a decision to ease lockdown restrictions in parts of the southern city of Guangzhou despite high case numbers.

The relaxation in Guangzhou contrasts sharply with the example of Shanghai this spring, when Sun visited while the city was subjected to a severe two-month lockdown that emphasised the government’s commitment to eliminate the virus.

Analysts pointed to her comments and the Guangzhou decision as evidence of a reopening, which in the absence of any clear government plan has been the subject of market speculation for months.

Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura, who has closely tracked the citywide lockdowns, said they may “point to the beginning of the end of zero-Covid”. Analysts at ANZ, the Australian bank, suggested that China was instead shifting to “living with Covid”, citing the introduction of rules that allow people to quarantine at home.

State media this week shifted their tone to emphasise that Omicron was less deadly than earlier strains. On Thursday, the state-run Global Times cited domestic research that showed the mortality associated with the Omicron variant had declined.

“We should not be too afraid of Omicron,” an editorial in the paper said. “For the general population, with vaccine protection, Covid-19 has become much less harmful to the human body.”

Hu Xijin, former editor of the paper, wrote on Twitter that China was “speeding up to cast aside large-scale lockdowns”, citing the examples of Guangzhou and Beijing.

In Beijing, which posted record infections on Thursday, anecdotal reports emerged of officials allowing home isolation rather than centralised quarantine for close contacts of those with Covid-19. In Guangzhou, there were also reports of home quarantine for those with the virus.

The zero-Covid policy requires central isolation not only for positive cases but also their close contacts. The latter rose to more than 1mn last month amid the record outbreak, stretching capacity to implement the rules.

Popular resistance against restrictions has gathered pace in recent days after a wave of public vigils and demonstrations following the deaths of 10 people in a fire in the western city of Urumqi, which were blamed on a lockdown. Authorities have denied the allegation.

Despite more confident predictions of a reopening, China’s approach is still characterised by confusion and inconsistencies across regions and cities.

Lu at Nomura suggested “the path to ‘living with Covid’ might still be slow, costly and bumpy”, pointing to the arrival of winter.

In Shanghai, authorities have tightened measures in the past week by requiring residents to produce PCR test results to enter some public places every two rather than three days. Visitors to the city are also blocked from entering public areas for five days.

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