Coronavirus is weakening and management protocols could be downgraded, an expert on China’s state media has claimed, after unprecedented protests last week led to a major shift in Beijing’s commitment to its zero-Covid policy.
Since January 2020, China has classified Covid-19 as a Category B infectious disease but has managed it under Category A protocols, which give local authorities the power to put patients and their close contacts into quarantine and lock down affected regions.
Category A diseases in China include bubonic plague and cholera, while Sars, Aids and anthrax fall under Category B. Category C diseases include influenza, leprosy and mumps. Infectious diseases that can be easily spread and have a high fatality rate are classified as Class A or Class B but managed as Class A.
But an unnamed infectious disease expert told Chinese media outlet Yicai that more than 95% of China’s cases are now asymptomatic and mild, and the fatality rate is very low. Under such circumstances, adhering to Class A management is not in line with science, Yicai reported on Sunday.
Covid-19 could be downgraded to Category B management or even Category C, the expert was quoted as saying.
Sources told Reuters that a new set of nationwide rules are due to be announced soon, paving the way for more coordinated easing. Beijing is also weighing whether to scale down its management of the virus to reflect the less serious threat it poses as early as January, the sources added.
Any adjustment to the management of infectious diseases by the National Health Commission, China’s top health authority, requires the approval of the State Council, or cabinet.
Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan last week said that China is facing “a new situation” as the Omicron virus weakens, becoming the first high-ranking government official to publicly acknowledge that the new coronavirus’s ability to cause damage has diminished. The government and its media is now heavily emphasising the reduced severity, and is promoting personal mitigation measures and vaccination.
It marked an abrupt political turnaround for the country’s zero-Covid policy, which Xi Jinping had – until the protests – dictated was China’s only path out of the pandemic. The policy had seen China’s 1.4 billion people largely protected from the virus during most of the pandemic, but was significantly challenged by the emergence of more transmissible variants. Local officials, who faced punishment for failing to control local outbreaks, were increasingly turning to overzealous responses, sometimes over just a handful of cases.
“Local party leaders knew the lockdown was Xi Jinping’s top priority, so to show legitimacy and competency, to appeal to Xi, many took more extreme measures,” said Prof Chi Chunhuei, the director of Oregon State University’s centre for global health.
But an outpouring of public anger appears to have prompted authorities to lift some of the more onerous restrictions, even as they say the zero-Covid strategy, which aims to isolate every infected person, is still in place. There are some fear millions could die if restrictions were lifted entirely.
Throughout the pandemic, Covid restrictions have been managed by different levels of government, resulting in inconsistent and often confusing rules. The easing of restrictions appears to be operating in the same manner.
Beijing, Shanghai, Zhengzhou and Shenzhen are among cities to end a requirement for negative test results in order to board public transport. Beijing authorities have also ordered hospitals to stop refusing people with a negative result from entering, but this requirement is still in place in other cities, like Chengdu and Guangzhou.
Chongqing still requires a negative test from within the last three days to enter public places, while Zhejiang province has ended routine Covid tests entirely, according to state media.
The numbers of reported cases each day have also dropped in some areas, as testing is reduced.
“The information at this stage will be a bit chaotic,” said the former editor of state-backed tabloid, the Global Times, and now social commentator Hu Xijin, said on Weibo.
Analysts have said that exiting zero-Covid will pose a major political challenge for Xi. There have already been reports of confusion and complaints as the rollback of some zero-covid infrastructure clashes with rules still in place, such as the reduction in testing stations causing long queues for those who still need tests to travel or take part in particular activities.
“What’s the point in closing testing booths before dropping the need to show test results completely?” said one Weibo user.
China is the last major country trying to stop transmission completely through quarantines, lockdowns and mass testing. Concerns over vaccination rates are believed to figure prominently in the ruling Communist party’s determination to stick to its hard-line strategy.
While nine in 10 Chinese have been vaccinated, only 66% of people over 80 have been given one shot while just 40% have received a booster, according to the commission. It said 86% of people over 60 are vaccinated.
Last week’s demonstrations, the largest in decades, saw protesters in cities including Shanghai and Beijing demand an easing of Covid restrictions. Some called for Chinese Xi to step down.