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Explainer: What's happening with Covid-19 in China?

The country has abandoned its harsh zero-covid approach, but an explosion of cases has prompted concerns about the outbreak spreading to other countries.

CHINA HAS MADE an abrupt u-turn with its coronavirus policy, rapidly rowing back on harsh lockdowns, mass testing and long quarantines as part of its zero-covid regime.

Chinese authorities today announced the end of mandatory quarantine for inbound travellers – the last remaining piece of its stringent zero-Covid policy.

Chinese citizens have celebrated the end of the measures, with many rushing to book international flights for the first time in nearly three years.

But the rest of the world is looking on with concern: China’s Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reported 5,231 new Covid cases and three deaths nationwide today – likely a drastic undercount since people are no longer required to declare infections to authorities.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that there is a risk of a new variant emerging anywhere that the virus is circulating or spreading.

So how did China go from zero-covid to the world’s largest surge in infections, and what does it mean for the rest of the world?

Zero-covid policy and protests

When the Covid-19 virus was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in 2020, lockdowns were employed to curb the spread of the virus. Wuhan was locked down for two months, and when restrictions there were eased, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control argued that the measures were highly effective.

For much of 2022, China was the world’s last major economy still wedded to a zero-Covid policy. Local governments were required to impose snap lockdowns and quarantine orders, and limit freedom of movement in response to even minor outbreaks.

The country’s borders were all but closed to foreign visitors, with those who did enter subject to lengthy quarantine in hotels.

china-shaanxi-xian-covid-19-lockdown-cn A near-empty street in Xi'an during a lockdown last year Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

Earlier this year, an outbreak in the commercial hub of Shanghai prompted a two-month lockdown which ground economic activity to a halt. Shops closed, as well as most schools, at a time when much of the world was living with little to no restrictions. Public transport did not operate and private cars were banned from public roads.

Residents were initially told they would be at home for a just few days in February were still stuck at home in May, when anger boiled over in the city of 24 million people. Workers at Apple supplier Quanta’s Shanghai factory fought with guards and broke through barricades over fears that restrictions on the campus could get harsher.

china-shanghai-quarantine-venue-operation-cn A quarantine zone in Shanghai in April 2022. Much of the world had eased covid restrictions by then. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

China’s government keeps a tight leash on the country’s media, with legions of online censors on hand to scrub out content deemed politically sensitive. Throughout the pandemic, state-run publication heralded the the zero-Covid policy, but in recent months, complaints that the controls were too extreme and counterproductive grew.

In November, Chinese citizens took to the streets in major cities and gathered at university campuses in a wave of nationwide protests not seen since pro-democracy rallies in 1989 were crushed.

anti-china-zero-covid-policy-protest-in-india Many protesters held up blank sheets of paper to symbolise censorship of information about the virus Kabir Jhangiani / PA Kabir Jhangiani / PA / PA

The displays of public defiance were fanned by anger over a fire in an apartment compound that had killed 10 people, as emergency workers took three hours to extinguish the blaze — a delay many attributed to obstacles caused by anti-virus measures.

Anger over the lockdowns widened to calls for political change, with protesters holding up blank sheets of paper to symbolise the pervasive censorship and tight control of information concerning the virus.

Easing of restrictions

Starting last month, the ruling Communist party gradually shifted to an approach more reminiscent of “living with covid” policies adopted by much of the rest of the world.

Authorities announced changes on 11 November that it said were aimed at reducing disruptions after economic activity had torpedoed. More changes were announced following the protests.

The government has stopped reporting nationwide case numbers but announcements by some cities indicate that at least tens and possibly hundreds of millions of people might have been infected since the surge began in early October.

A state-run news outlet in the city of Qingdao reported that it was seeing “between 490,000 and 530,000″ new Covid cases a day. The report was shared by several other news outlets but appeared to have been edited the next morning to remove the case figures.

Cities across the country have struggled to cope as surging infections have emptied pharmacy shelves, filled hospital wards and appeared to cause backlogs at crematoriums and funeral homes.

virus-outbreak-china A patient is turned away from an emergency room at full capacity in the city of Zhuozhou AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

While many citizens greeted the relaxing of the rules with relief, the rapid shift also caused some concern after years in which the Chinese government talked about the virus as a major threat.

“Beijing is really confused right now,” one one resident told the PA news agency. “They made a complete 180-degree turn without even going through a transitionary period.”

Hospitals and crematoriums continue to be overwhelmed by an influx of mostly elderly people.

Worldwide nervousness

China’s sudden pivot away from a containment approach has prompted nervousness around the world, with the US saying it may restrict travel from the country.

From 8 January, the last remaining piece of the zero-covid policy, hotel quarantine for inbound travellers, will be scrapped.

Other countries have expressed concerns about the potential for new variants to emerge as China battles the world’s biggest surge in infections. Countries including Japan and India have introduced PCR testing on arrival for Chinese passengers.

Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China claims as its own, said today that it would also screen travellers from the mainland for the virus.

China’s Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reported 5,231 new Covid cases and three deaths nationwide today – likely a drastic undercount since people are no longer required to declare infections to authorities.

The US has urged China to act to contain the spread: Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week called on Beijing to share information on the outbreak, saying its surging caseload had impacted the world.

He also renewed an offer to share US vaccines. Many elderly Chinese have never been vaccinated or have not received booster shots, which are particularly important for curbing the spread of the Omicron variant.

“It is very important for all countries, including China, to focus on people getting vaccinated, making testing and treatment available and, importantly, sharing information with the world about what they’re experiencing,” Blinken told a news conference.

It has implications not just for China, but for the entire world.

Beijing has promoted exports of homegrown vaccines judged by international health experts to be less efficient than US-made ones.

“We’re fully prepared to provide assistance to anyone who asks for it if they think it’s useful,” Blinken said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that the current explosion of cases started before the easing of restrictions.

“The explosion of cases in China is not due to the lifting of Covid restrictions. The explosion of cases in China had started long before any easing of the zero-Covid policy,” WHO emergencies chief Michael Ryan told reporters.

“There’s a narrative that, in some way, China lifted the restrictions and all of a sudden, the disease is out of control,” he added at the UN health agency’s headquarters in Geneva.

The disease was spreading intensively because the control measures in themselves were not stopping the disease.

“There is data from places like Hong Kong that show that the inactivated Chinese vaccines, with the addition of a third dose, performed very, very well. But it did require that third dose to show that effect,” he said.

Additional reporting by PA and AFP

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