BEIJING, Dec 2 (Reuters) – Some communities in Chinese cities where COVID-19 is still spreading are easing testing requirements and quarantine rules earlier than expected change in antivirus policies across the country following widespread social unrest.
The uneven easing of COVID restrictions, however, is fueling fear among some residents who suddenly feel more exposed to a disease that 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 disposable surgical type, have increased this week. Some people wearing N95s on Friday said they received them from their employers.
Such cautious behavior bodes ill for consumer-oriented businesses and factories in major cities affected by COVID, whose workers hope to remain virus-free at least until they return to their families in the countryside for the Lunar New Year.
The elderly, many of whom have not yet been vaccinated, feel most vulnerable.
Shi Wei, a Beijing resident suffering from lymphatic cancer, spends most of his time in isolation, but is still worried about contracting COVID and passing it on to his 80-year-old mother as she goes out for hospital treatment at every three weeks.
“I can only pray that God will protect me,” he said.
China’s policies against COVID have battered its economy, stifling everything from domestic consumption to factory output to global supply chains and causing severe mental stress to hundreds of millions of people.
Anger against the world’s strictest restrictions has fueled dozens of protests in more than 20 cities in recent days in a display of civil disobedience unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
Less than 24 hours after people clashed with white-suited riot police in Guangzhou, a sprawling manufacturing hub north of Hong Kong, the city lifted lockdowns in at least seven of its districts. Some communities now require less frequent testing and allow close contacts of infected people to be quarantined at home, according to state media.
But the city’s uneven relaxation of rules is causing other kinds of problems for its residents.
“I’m going on vacation tomorrow and I had to look 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 is leading the COVID effort, said this week that the virus’s ability to cause disease is weakening, a message that is consistent with what health officials around the world have been saying for more than a year.
While government officials in the cities that lifted the lockdowns did not mention the protests in their announcements, national health officials said China would respond to “urgent concerns” expressed by the public.
China is ready to announce nationwide relieve of quarantine and testing requirements, sources told Reuters, which many hope will make enforcement more uniform.
The measures include reducing the use of mass testing and regular nucleic acid testing, as well as steps to allow positive cases and close contacts to self-isolate at home under certain conditions, 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 be quarantined at home, while some shopping malls in the capital reopened from Thursday.
A residential community in eastern Beijing on Friday sent out a notice saying that those without “any social activities,” such as the housebound elderly and infants, should no longer be tested regularly “to reduce the risk of crowding of people”.
Several testing booths in the area have stopped working and the number of people tested has dropped by 20-30%, an official of the testing staff said. However, the nearby park remained closed and restaurants and cafes only sold takeout.
Earlier this year, entire communities were locked down, sometimes for weeks, even after just one positive case, with people stuck indoors losing income, having poor access to basic needs and struggling to cope mentally with the isolation.
Some areas in Guangzhou have resumed dining services and residents are no longer required to present negative PCR tests to enter, state media reported.
In nearby Shenzhen, some people will be allowed to self-quarantine at home. About a thousand kilometers to the west, in Chongqing, a wide range of businesses from barbershops to gyms were allowed to reopen this week.
In Chengdu, Sichuan province, passengers no longer needed negative test results to take a bus or subway. In Jincheng, which is halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, people can now enter karaoke bars, but still cannot dine in restaurants.
At the same time, many communities in areas designated as high-risk by various cities remain under lockdown, and many people still have to undergo daily testing.
“The high spirits are not universal,” said the Guangzhou-based diplomat. “While many people are enjoying their newfound freedom, it’s worth noting that there are still hundreds of high-risk areas that are locked down across the city.”
Additional reporting by Eduardo Baptista, Albie Zhang and Ryan Wu in Beijing; Written by Marius Zacharias; Edited by Michael Perry
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