Shenzhen loosens COVID restrictions as China eases up after protests

China’s southern tech hub Shenzhen ended mandatory Covid testing to enter public venues, adding to a growing list of local authorities easing strict social curbs imposed across the nation since the pandemic broke out three years ago.

Covid test results are no longer needed in Shenzhen to enter public transport, drug stores, parks and outdoor tourism spots, according to statements issued by the local government Saturday. China reported 32,206 new Covid cases for Friday.

Earlier this week, the capital city Beijing and the southern factory hub Guangzhou lifted some of their restrictions even as virus infections fanned the worst outbreak since the crisis began. 

Top government officials this week signaled a transition away from the harshest containment measures, soon after anti-lockdown protests erupted across China. Its goal to eliminate the virus has become harder to enforce since the arrival of the more infectious omicron variant. That increased the toll on the world’s second-largest economy and angered citizens with every stepped-up attempt to crush Covid-19 by restricting movement.

Vice Premier Sun Chunlan — the leader that besides President Xi Jinping has been most closely associated with the Covid-Zero strategy — struck a new tone at a meeting this week, saying the “fight against the pandemic is at a new stage and it comes with new tasks” as omicron is less pathogenic and more people get vaccinated.  

The less-lethal omicron variant is now the prevalent strain in China, Xi told European Council President Charles Michel in Beijing on Thursday, according to a European Union official who was briefed on the meeting. If confirmed, Xi’s comments would be the first public acknowledgment that the virus is weakening, adding to suggestions China’s leadership is moving toward further loosening of strict Covid-Zero policies.

Underscoring China’s cautious approach, Beijing’s municipal government on Saturday denied online rumors that the capital will start a full reopening, including a halt to mass Covid testing and tracking, the official Beijing Daily reported. While the situation is stabilizing, cases are elevated and widely spread, the report said. 

Other developments this week prompted cautious optimism China’s mindset around Covid has turned a corner:

  • Authorities in the capital Beijing said hospitals and public transport can’t reject people who are unable to provide negative Covid test results taken within 48 hours.
  • Beijing will now allow some people infected with the virus to isolate at home, starting with residents of the city’s most-populous district. Bus and subway operators have also been warned not to reject passengers who don’t have negative Covid test results taken within 48 hours.
  • Chengdu canceled a rule requiring citizens to show negative test results to enter public venues such as malls and supermarkets.
  • The southern Guangdong province said close contacts who meet certain requirements can remain at home instead of going to centralized isolation facilities.
  • Guangdong’s capital Guangzhou later replaced lockdowns with more targeted restrictions, similar to a move announced in Zhengzhou, home to Apple Inc.’s largest manufacturing site in China.
  • Beijing, Guangzhou and Hebei province ended a requirement to register before residents can buy medication for fever and coughs, antivirals and antibiotics, 21st Century Business Herald reported on Saturday, citing government notices.

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