BEIJING (Reuters) – China is set to announce new measures to further ease some of the world’s toughest COVID-19 restrictions as early as Wednesday, sources told Reuters, with investors cheering the prospect of changes after widespread protests and growing economic damage.
The zero-COVID policy to eradicate transmission has become a global aberration as most countries seek to live with the disease, but 20 new measures to streamline controls came in last month, amid growing public frustration.
After the rare widespread demonstrations in November in more than 20 cities, crucial elements of the policy, such as some mandatory tests, and even messages about the mortality of the virus, are changing.
Here are questions and answers about a key turning point in President Xi Jinping’s signature policy:
IS CHINA ABANDONING ZERO-COVID?
Not yet, but it is making gradual adjustments, easing testing requirements and quarantine rules.
Changes varying by location have taken place even in cities like southern Guangzhou and the capital Beijing, despite recent record infections.
Officials have told local governments not to use a previous “one size fits all” approach. Instead, cities closed individual apartment buildings and complexes after cases were discovered, instead of portions of city blocks.
Further changes could come as early as Wednesday, Reuters reported.
WHY MAKE CHANGES NOW?
Public fatigue with zero-COVID is growing, and a surge that triggered shutdowns in many cities last month, often out of the blue, has seen anger boil over.
At the same time, the world’s second-largest economy is being hit by restrictions that have weighed on consumption and travel and disrupted factory production and global supply chains.
The 20th Congress of the ruling Communist Party in October, where Xi secured a third leadership team for five years, had been seen as an important milestone that could lead to an unraveling of the policy.
WHAT IS CHINA DOING TO PREPARE FOR EASING?
It recently announced efforts to boost vaccination among its large elderly population. Some cities have rolled out a new inhalable COVID vaccine booster from CanSino Biologics.
But many experts said China has not done enough.
It has not approved more effective foreign mRNA vaccines against COVID-19. A senior US intelligence official said Xi was unwilling to accept Western vaccines.
Some experts are urging more booster doses of vaccines and beefed up health services as herd immunity is low after the virus was largely kept at bay for the first two years of the pandemic.
Predictions of deaths after a possible reopening range from 1.55 million to more than 2 million, depending on vaccination levels and health care preparedness.
Yet the current tally of 5,235 COVID-related deaths represents a tiny fraction of China’s population of 1.4 billion, and extremely low by global standards.
HOW HAS THE PUBLIC REACTED TO THE CHANGES?
With relief and concern. Many, especially in major cities, frustrated with the inconvenience, uncertainty, economic toll and travel restrictions that come with zero-COVID, would welcome its end.
But others, including the elderly, worry about the costs of a large epidemic. Fear of the disease runs deep after heavy-handed containment measures, while state media have reported deaths and chaos elsewhere, particularly in the United States.
Recent rule changes and their uneven application have also confused many.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR FULL REOPENING?
China virtually closed its borders to international travel for nearly three years. International flights are still only a fraction of pre-pandemic levels and arrivals face an eight-day quarantine.
Many analysts said a major reopening would not begin until March or April, after the winter flu season and the annual session of parliament which usually begins on March 5.
Goldman Sachs bank said it expects a gradual reopening from April.
But Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics, said a move away from zero-COVID was unlikely even in 2023, citing low vaccination rates among the elderly, among other factors.
JPMorgan analysts have warned that the road to reopening is likely to be bumpy.
(Reporting by Beijing and Shanghai Newsroom, Writing by Bernard Orr; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)
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