China’s daily Covid cases have hit a record high since the beginning of the pandemic, official data showed Thursday, as the country works to curb the spread with snap lockdowns, mass testing and travel restrictions.
China recorded 31,454 domestic cases — 27,517 without symptoms — on Wednesday, the National Health Bureau said.
The numbers are relatively small when compared with China’s vast population of 1.4 billion, AFP reported.
But under Beijing’s strict zero-Covid policy, even tiny outbreaks can shut down entire cities and place contacts of infected patients into strict quarantine.
The unrelenting policy has caused fatigue and resentment among swathes of the population as the pandemic nears its third year, sparking sporadic protests and hitting productivity in the world’s second-largest economy.
Wednesday’s figures exceed the 29,390 infections recorded in mid-April when megacity Shanghai was under lockdown, with residents struggling to buy food and access medical care.
China set to loosen COVID curbs after week of protests
China is set to announce an easing of its COVID-19 quarantine protocols in the coming days and a reduction in mass testing, sources told Reuters, a marked shift in policy after anger over the world’s toughest curbs fuelled widespread protests, Reuters reported.
Cases nationwide remain near record highs but the changes come as some cities have been lifting their lockdowns in recent days, and a top official said the ability of the virus to cause disease was weakening.
Health authorities announcing the easing in their areas have not mentioned the protests – the biggest show of civil disobedience in China for years – which ranged from candle-lit vigils in Beijing to street clashes with police in Guangzhou, read the report.
The measures due to be unveiled include a reduction in the use of mass testing and regular nucleic acid tests as well as moves to allow positive cases and close contacts to isolate at home under certain conditions, the sources familiar with the matter said.
That is a far cry from earlier protocols that led to public frustrations as entire communities were locked down, sometimes for weeks, after even just one positive case.
The frustration boiled over last week in demonstrations of public defiance unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012. The unrest comes as the economy is set to enter a new era of much slower growth than seen in decades, Reuters reported.
On Thursday night, Shanghai train commuters reported wirelessly receiving an unsolicited document onto their phones saying that life in China would only get better if there was a full lifting of lockdown and that Xi step down – an apparently new tactic amid a heavy police presence in some cities ahead of the weekend.
Less than 24 hours after violent protests in Guangzhou on Tuesday, authorities in at least seven districts of the sprawling manufacturing hub, said they were lifting temporary lockdowns. One district said it would allow schools, restaurants and businesses including cinemas to reopen, read the report.
Cities including Chongqing and Zhengzhou also announced easings.
According to Reuters in the capital, Beijing, some communities have begun preparing for changes.
More COVID outbreaks could weigh on China’s economic activity in the near term, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday, adding it saw scope for a safe recalibration of policies that could allow economic growth to pick up in 2023, read the report.
China’s strict containment measures have dampened domestic economic activity this year and spilled over to other countries through supply chain interruptions.
Protests across China as anger mounts over zero-Covid policy
Angry crowds took to the streets in Shanghai early on Sunday, and videos on social media showed protests in other cities across China, as public opposition to the government’s hardline zero-Covid policy mounts.
A deadly fire on Thursday in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang region, has spurred an outpouring of anger as many social media users blamed lengthy Covid lockdowns for hampering rescue efforts by China is the last major economy wedded to a zero-Covid strategy, with authorities wielding snap lockdowns, lengthy quarantines and mass testing to snuff out new outbreaks as they emerge.
In a video widely shared on social media and geolocated by AFP, some protesters can be heard chanting “Xi Jinping, step down! CCP, step down!” in central Shanghai’s Wulumuqi street in a rare display of public opposition to China’s top leadership.
A person who attended the Shanghai protests but asked not to be identified told AFP they arrived at the rally at 2:00 am to see one group of people putting flowers on the sidewalk to mourn the 10 people killed in the fire, while another group chanted slogans.
Video taken by an eyewitness showed a large crowd shouting and holding up blank white pieces of paper — a symbolic protest against censorship — as they faced several lines of police.
The attendee said there were minor clashes but that overall the police were “civilized”.
Multiple witnesses said a couple of people were taken away by the police, AFP reported.
The area was quiet by daytime Sunday but a heavy security presence was visible.
Other vigils took place overnight at universities across China, including one at the elite Peking University, an undergraduate participant told AFP.
Speaking anonymously for fear of repercussions, he said some anti-Covid slogans had been graffitied on a wall in the university. People had started gathering from around midnight local time, but he hadn’t dared join initially. “When I arrived (two hours later), I think there were at least 100 people there, maybe 200,” he said.
He said he heard people yelling: “No to Covid tests, yes to freedom!”
Videos on social media also showed a mass vigil at Nanjing Institute of Communications, with people holding lights and white sheets of paper.
The protests come against a backdrop of mounting public frustration over China’s zero-tolerance approach to the virus and follow sporadic rallies in other cities recently. A number of high-profile cases in which emergency services have been allegedly slowed down by Covid lockdowns, leading to deaths, have catalyzed public opposition.
Beijing life on hold for lockdowns, COVID testing
As cases of COVID-19 hit record daily highs, China is reimposing a range of strict measures under its “zero-COVID” policy, including lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines for anyone suspected of having come into contact with the virus, AP reported.
The restrictions cover cities and towns from the southern manufacturing center of Guangzhou to Beijing in the north. While measures imposed in the Chinese capital have been less draconian than in other areas, normal life in the city has been severely disrupted, with no word yet on when restrictions will be lifted.
Along with the closure of hundreds of shops, restaurants, malls and office buildings, residential compounds have been sealed off to different degrees of severity. In some cases, all outside visitors and delivery people are banned, leaving residents to collect items at the gate. Authorities have issued notices asking residents not to leave home unless absolutely necessary or to buy groceries and seek medical help.
In some cases, fences or other barriers have been erected to control access. Entrances are guarded, sometimes by people in hazmat suits, to ensure only those with authorization can pass and that everyone scans the all-important health code to show they have a recent negative test result.
Those are obtained at one of the scores of testing stations set up outdoors across the city, where residents join often lengthy lines to undergo a nucleic acid test that entails having their IDs recorded and a swab taken from inside the mouth.
With so many people staying home, either voluntarily or under orders, the city’s streets are eerily quiet. Frustration with the harsh measures is growing across China, although Beijing has yet to see the sort of confrontations between residents, workers and the authorities that have recently occurred in other cities.
As the seat of the national government and ruling Communist Party, Beijing is being treated more delicately to ensure basic functioning and prevent the sort of rare protests seen in cities such as Shanghai, which underwent a harsh two-month lockdown in the spring.
Still, the city is tense and the stress is wearing on many of the 21 million residents, young and old, Chinese and foreign, who are all asking the same question: How much longer will these measures be in place?
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