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China eases covid testing and health-pass rules in wake of protests

A woman is tested for the coronavirus Wednesday at a site in Shanghai. (Aly Song/Reuters)
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China announced on Wednesday that frequent coronavirus tests and digital health codes, two pillars of its “zero covid” policy, would no longer be required for daily life or to travel within the country — a significant relaxation of previously unyielding restrictions that were protested in more than a dozen cities across the country in recent weeks.

The State Council, China’s cabinet, released a 10-point plan that also said those with less severe infections could quarantine at home rather than in centralized facilities, unless they “volunteer” to go into care. Apartment stairwells or floors would no longer be considered high-risk zones after five consecutive days without any new cases, and residents must be released from these zones in a timely fashion.

Digital health passes, region-specific apps that track movement and testing history, will no longer be required for access to most buildings or public transport. Developed by major Chinese technology firms on behalf of the government, the QR codes generated by the software have been a central part of China’s extensive contact tracing.

See what led protesters to a breaking point with China’s ‘zero covid’ policy

They became so essential to getting around that people speak with terror of being “pop-upped” when a sudden notification switches your code from green to red, identifying you as an at-risk person.

Along with requirements to regularly visit PCR testing booths — at-home antigen rapid tests are not officially recognized or widely used — these apps were among the most prominent features of zero covid life in China. Some human rights activists have raised fears that they will forever remain in operation as part of China’s expanding surveillance state.

The relaxation measures were an extension of a 20-step “optimization” plan released in early November aimed at reducing the economic and social costs of arbitrary and excessive restrictions, while at the same time continuing to stress that local officials should prioritize fighting the virus.

While many of the changes represent only a stepwise evolution, rather than a reversal, from the earlier announcement, they are among the clearest signs to date that the government is serious about dismantling its strictest controls and shifting to an approach some analysts labeled “zero covid in name only.”

“The transition to living with the virus is likely to take time,” research firm Capital Economics said in a note on Wednesday. “In the interim, some restrictions will still be needed, first to buy time to vaccinate more elderly, then subsequently to manage pressure on the healthcare system during China’s reopening wave.”

China warns of crackdown amid mixed messaging on ‘zero covid’ future

Even as the rest of the world has learned to live with the coronavirus, China has consistently pledged “unswerving” adherence to a policy of removing all cases from the general public and cutting off transmission as soon as possible. Confusion followed the announcement in early November as major cities first loosened — then rapidly reinstated — testing procedures.

That lack of clarity fueled public frustration after the arrival of more transmissible variants led local authorities to impose ever harsher lockdowns, the most dramatic of which was Shanghai’s two month citywide stay-at-home order in the spring. Mounting discontent boiled over in late November when restrictions were blamed for deaths during an apartment complex fire in the far western city of Urumqi.

Protesters across China are pushing back on the government’s “zero covid” policy. These are the most widespread demonstrations since Tiananmen Square in 1989. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

In protests that spread across college campuses and into the shopping and business districts of major Chinese cities, people’s calls for an end to the zero covid regime rapidly evolved into broader demands for freedom of speech, human rights, and, in one instance, even for President Xi Jinping to step down.

It’s unclear to what extent the protests informed the Chinese government’s updated rules. Officials have barely acknowledged the widespread demonstrations, which were followed by a crackdown with heavy police presence on city streets as well as detentions and phone checks for participants. The earlier, 20-point easing announcement was made before protests erupted.

Liang Wannian, head of China’s covid-19 expert adviser team, told a news conference Wednesday that the decision to update the policy was neither “reactive” nor equivalent to “totally giving up on prevention.”

Point nine of Wednesday’s plan, however, prohibited the blocking of firefighting passages or building doorways, a possible response to outcry over the deaths of seven adults and three children in the Urumqi blaze.

The document also underscored the need to accelerate vaccinations for those over 60 and to improve monitoring of at-risk populations with underlying conditions to ensure access to health care, in a bid to plug critical gaps in the country’s pandemic defenses as it begins to accept wider circulation of the virus.

After months of continually stressing the severity of the virus, Chinese state media has in recent days published articles about patients with mild infections who make rapid and full recoveries. One headline cited an expert who declared that omicron symptoms are very similar to the flu, a sentiment that was repeatedly rejected by officials earlier in the year.

Even the official term for the policy of bring infections down to zero — which roughly translates as “dynamic clearing” — has begun to appear less frequently in official statements. It was not mentioned once in either Wednesday’s announcement or the subsequent news conference.

Sun Chunlan, the vice premier who has led the coronavirus response, also omitted the term from an appearance last Wednesday where she declared a “new situation and new mission” underpinning the epidemic control strategy.

Even so, many aspects of the strategy remain intact. International travel restrictions, which were absent from the latest announcement, mean China continues to require eight days of quarantine for overseas arrivals and remains closed for tourism. Beijing city on Wednesday also launched a new digital health pass for antigen tests, which it said would be voluntary.

Li Bin, deputy director of the National Health Commission, told reporters on Wednesday that the winter months would make it harder to constrain the virus and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. “The covid pandemic is still not over,” he said, and quoted a traditional Chinese saying favored by Xi to warn of the need for constant vigilance: “To be prepared for the unexpected is a basic principle of governing.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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