After opposition over the ultra-strict 'Zero-COVID policy' to curb coronavirus cases in China, the government, though firm on its decision to use this strategy, maybe consider tweaking some measures.
Amid record COVID-19 infections and protests in Shanghai and Beijing, a Chinese official said on Tuesday that lockdown decisions should be nimble-footed. In other words, the removal of lockdowns should be as prompt as the decision to impose them. This hints at some tweaks in the handling of the situation by the government which till now has been quite strict in imposing containment and restriction measures.
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The official was speaking during a press conference on COVID prevention and control measures.
First, the current situation in China
China, which has been witnessing record daily COVID-19 cases for nearly a week, reported a decline in new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday. The country posted 38,645 cases for November 28, down from the record 40,347 cases reported the previous day.
Dealing with fallouts
When asked about China's strategy to help people dealing with anxiety during lockdowns, the official said, "Localities should be trained... high-risk regions is one unit that should not be expanded to bigger scope. But due to the transmission, there can be expansion... lockdown should be quick, removal of lockdowns should also be quick... minimize the inconveniences,". Authorities have also batted for providing psychological counselling to people.
Widespread protest over Zero-COVID policy
China has been witnessing large-scale protests over its strict COVID-19 restrictions that are believed to have hampered rescue operations in a fire incident that killed ten in Xinjiang's Ürümqi city - parts of which had been under lockdown for 100 days.
The protest gained momentum after clashes were reported between police and protesters in parts of the country over the weekend. From the streets of several Chinese cities to dozens of university campuses, protesters made a show of civil disobedience towards Xi Jinping.
So, is China reconsidering its COVID policy?
After the pandemic outbreak, the government is closely following the mutation situation, while we are doing research and assessment accordingly, an official said.
"We are closely following the evolving situations internationally... So, for the containment and control measures, we are doing fine tuning and modifications continuously...," he said.
On public complaints
The official admitted that there have been lots of complicated situations to deal with. Some localities have seen severe containment measures.
"There are complaints about unprecise and untargeted containment which jeopardized people's livelihood... there's lack of patience and lack of communication with the general public... lots of misunderstanding being caused," he said.
Mi Feng, spokesperson for China's National Health Commission, was quoted by Bloomberg as saying local officials must respond to and resolve "reasonable" COVID requests from residents in a timely manner.
Mi said China is constantly adjusting its COVID policies. Another NHC official, Cheng Youquan, said the recent residents' complaints aren't on COVID controls themselves, but on excessive controls, random lockdowns and neglecting requests.
Slogans calling for Xi to step down were chanted during the demonstrations. The protesters also demanded freedom from masks and COVID tests, while calling for greater political freedoms.
"Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping"; "End the COVID lockdown" and "We don’t want masks, we want freedom. We don’t want COVID tests, we want freedom" were some of the slogans chanted during protest rallies in China.
The press conference saw a reiteration of vaccination for the elderly, especially those above the age of 80, as a priority.
"We will implement vaccination work around the country, especially for elderly over 80 years old. They added that nursing homes with elderly must take extra precautions and those eligible must get vaccinated as soon as possible. "Senior citizens must wear masks and avoid social gatherings..." the official said.
China says it will speed up a push to vaccinate people aged 60 and older against COVID after the country posted record daily case numbers in recent days.
"Beijing will "establish a special working group... to make special arrangements for the vaccination of the elderly," an official said.
Chinese authorities take action
While speculations are rife that Xi may rope in the military to quell the mass protests, security has been tightened in areas including in Beijing or Shanghai to prevent more protests.
Chinese authorities have also launched inquiries into some of the people who gathered at weekend protests against COVID-19 curbs, three people who were at the Beijing demonstrations told Reuters, as police remained out in numbers on the city's streets.
Amid the chaos and pandemonium, authorities eased anti-virus rules in scattered areas of China on Monday. However, they affirmed China’s severe “zero- COVID” strategy. The city government of Beijing announced it would no longer set up gates to block access to apartment compounds where infections are found.
It has been also reported that Chinese authorities have taken measures to censor videos and images of the rallies. On Monday, police were allegedly stopping and searching people at the sites of weekend protests in Shanghai and Beijing. Police have also been asking people for their phones to check if they had virtual private networks (VPNs) and the Telegram app, which has been used by weekend protesters, residents and social media users said. VPNs are illegal for most people in China, while the Telegram app is blocked from China's internet.
Meanwhile, the protests have now reached other parts of the world. According to Reuters, some groups held demonstrations in parts of London, Paris, Tokyo and Sydney to show solidarity with protesters in China.
The backlash over the Zero-COVID policy
Despite opposition over the ultra-strict 'Zero-COVID policy' to curb coronavirus cases in China, the government has been firm on its decision to use this strategy to mitigate the virus spread.
The zero-COVID policy has definitely kept China's official death toll in the thousands, against more than a million in the United States. However, it has come at the cost of confining many millions to long spells at home, drastically affecting livelihood and damage to the world's second-largest economy.
Also, the cause of these nationwide protests were the restrictions that allegedly hindered rescue and escape operations following an apartment fire in Urumqi that killed 10 people.
Moreover, research and studies have indicated that vaccines used in China are not much effective against the virus. However, officials maintain that vaccines have "proven effective in severe cases".
China firm on its policies till now
When asked at a press briefing about the protests, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian had said on Monday that the question did not match the "facts". He said: "What you mentioned does not reflect what actually happened...We believe that... our fight against Covid-19 will be successful".
According to Reuters, Xi Jinping had earlier claimed personal responsibility for leading the "war" against COVID-19. He had justified zero-COVID with a need to "put people above everything" and counted his "correct" COVID policy among his political achievements when he sought a precedent-breaking third term at the 20th Communist Party Congress in October.
Nearly three years into the pandemic, China said its policies are not geared towards having zero cases at all times but instead, are about "dynamically" taking action when cases surface.
While proterters are demanding Xi Jinping to step down from the his key position, analysts believe it would be hard for them to topple his government - keeping in view his power in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and full control over the military, security and propaganda machinery.
(Edited by : Abhishek Jha)
First Published: Nov 29, 2022 1:05 PM IST