BEIJING, Dec 2 (Reuters) – Some communities in urban China where COVID-19 is still spreading are easing testing requirements and quarantine rules ahead of an expected shift in virus policy across the country after widespread social unrest.
However, the uneven relaxation of COVID restrictions has increased the risk among some residents, who are suddenly more vulnerable to the disease, which authorities say will lead to deaths as early as this week.
Pharmacies in Beijing said purchases of N95 masks, which offer much higher protection than the disposable surgical type, increased this week. Some people wearing N95s on Friday said they received them from their employers.
Such cautious behavior hurts consumer-facing businesses and factories in major COVID-free cities, whose workers hope to be free of the virus at least before the Lunar New Year returns to their rural families.
The elderly, many of whom are unvaccinated, feel most vulnerable.
Beijing resident Shi Wei, who has lymphoma, spends most of her time in isolation, but still worries about contracting COVID and passing it on to her 80-year-old mother when she goes to the hospital every three weeks for treatment.
“I can only pray to God to protect me,” he said.
China’s COVID policies have devastated its economy, stifling everything from domestic consumption to factory production to global supply chains, causing mental stress to hundreds of millions of people.
Protests against the world’s strictest restrictions have fueled demonstrations of civil disobedience in more than 20 cities in recent days, the largest in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
Less than 24 hours after people clashed with white hazmat-clad riot police in Guangzhou, a manufacturing hub north of Hong Kong, the city lifted a lockdown in at least seven of its districts. Some communities now require less testing and allow relatives of infected people to self-quarantine at home, state media reported.
But the uneven easing of regulations around the city is creating other 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 foreign consulate diplomat. in Guangzhou.
Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees the COVID effort, said this week that the virus’s ability to cause disease is weakening — a message consistent with what health authorities around the world have been saying for more than a year.
Although government officials in the cities that lifted the bans did not mention the protests in their announcements, national health officials said China would address the public’s “urgent concerns.”
China is set to announce a nationwide easing of quarantine and testing requirements, sources told Reuters, in a move many hope will make the implementation more uniform.
Those measures include mass testing and scaling back the use of routine nucleic acid tests, as well as steps to allow positive cases and close contacts to be isolated at home under certain conditions, sources familiar with the matter said.
However, some communities in Beijing and elsewhere have allowed close contacts of people carrying the virus to self-quarantine at home, and some shopping malls in the capital have reopened since Thursday.
On Friday, a residential community in eastern Beijing sent out a notice saying that people “without social activities”, such as the elderly and infants, should not undergo regular screening “to reduce the risk of overcrowding”.
Several testing booths in the region have stopped functioning and the number of test takers has dropped by 20-30%, a testing official said. However, the nearby park remains closed, and restaurants and cafes have only sold takeaways.
At the beginning of this year, entire communities, sometimes for weeks, even after a single positive event, people were confined to their homes, losing income, unable to meet basic needs, and mentally unable to cope with the isolation.
Dining services have resumed in some areas of Guangzhou and residents are no longer required to show negative PCR tests to enter, state media reported.
In the nearby city of Shenzhen, some people are allowed to quarantine at home. In Chongqing, about a thousand kilometers to the west, a wide range of businesses, from hair salons to gyms, were allowed to reopen this week.
In Chengdu, Sichuan province, passengers no longer need negative test results to board buses or subways. In Jincheng, a city halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, people can now enter karaoke bars, but not eat inside restaurants.
Meanwhile, many communities in areas deemed high-risk by various cities remain on lockdown, and many people still need to be tested daily.
“The upbeat sentiment is not universal,” said a diplomat in Guangzhou. “While many people are enjoying their newfound freedom, it’s important to note that there are still hundreds of high-risk areas 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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