China eases COVID quarantine despite rising cases

Incoming arrivals will only be quarantined for five days under eased measures.

China worker in protective gear watches residents in face masks
China's strict 'zero COVID' strategy has disrupted life by shutting schools, factories and shops, and sealing neighborhoods without warning [File: Andy Wong/AP]

Travellers arriving in China will spend less time in quarantine under changes to sweeping anti-COVID-19 controls intended to reduce disruption to the economy and society.

The announcement on Friday came even as an surge in COVID-19 cases prompted Beijing to close parks and impose other restrictions. The country reported 10,729 new cases, and more than five million people were confined to their homes in the southern manufacturing hub Guangzhou and the western megacity Chongqing.

With the bulk of Beijing’s 21 million people undergoing near-daily testing, another 118 new cases were recorded in the sprawling city. Many city schools switched to online classes, hospitals restricted services and some shops and restaurants were shuttered, with their staff taken to quarantine. Videos on social media showed people in some areas protesting or fighting with police and health workers.

“It has become normal, just like eating and sleeping,” said food service worker Yang Zheng, aged 39. “I think what it impacts most is kids because they need to go to school.”

Demands for testing every 24 to 48 hours are “troublesome,” said Ying Yiyang, who works in marketing.

“My life is for sure not comparable to what it was three years ago,” said Ying.

Family trips out of Beijing can be difficult if the mandatory smartphone app that keeps track of the user’s virus test status and whereabouts does not show the green code that authorises travel back to the Chinese capital, Ying said.

“I just stay in Beijing,” Ying said.

Public frustration

Numerous villages on the capital’s outskirts are home to blue-collar workers whose labour keeps the city running, with many living in dormitory communities. Taxi and ride-sharing drivers said they were avoiding the areas so as not to be placed in quarantine themselves.

Lockdowns in Guangzhou and elsewhere were due to end by Sunday, but authorities have repeatedly extended such restrictions with no explanation. Chinese leaders had promised on Thursday to respond to public frustration over its severe “zero-COVID” strategy that has confined millions to their homes and severely disrupted the economy.

Incoming passengers will only be quarantined for five days – rather than the previous seven – at a designated location, followed by three days of isolation at their place of residence, according to a notice from the State Council, China’s Cabinet.

It was not immediately clear when and where the rules would take effect and whether they would apply to foreigners and Chinese citizens alike.

Relaxed standards would also be applied to foreign business workers and athletes, in what appeared to be a gradual move towards normalisation.

Airlines will no longer be threatened with a two-week-long suspension of flights if five or more passengers tested positive, the regulations said, potentially providing a huge expansion of seats on such flights that have shrunk in numbers and soared in price since restrictions were imposed in 2020.

Those flying to China will only need to show a single negative test for the virus within 48 hours of travelling, the rules said. Formerly, two tests within that time period were required.

“Zero-COVID” has kept China’s infection rate relatively low but weighs on the economy and has disrupted life by shutting schools, factories and shops, or sealing neighbourhoods without warning. With the new surge in cases, a growing number of areas are shutting down businesses and imposing curbs on movement. In order to enter office buildings, shopping malls and other public places, people are required to show a negative result from a virus test taken as often as once a day.

With economic growth weakening again after rebounding to 3.9 percent over a year earlier in the three months ending in September, forecasters had been expecting bolder steps towards reopening the country, whose borders remain largely closed.

Business groups’ policies discourage foreign executives from visiting, which has prompted companies to shift investment plans to other countries. Visits from US officials and legislators charged with maintaining the crucial trading relations amid tensions over tariffs, Taiwan and human rights have come to a virtual standstill.

Last week, access to part of the central city of Zhengzhou, home to the world’s biggest iPhone factory, was suspended after residents tested positive for the virus. Thousands of workers jumped fences and hiked along highways to escape the factory run by Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group. Apple Inc later warned customers would have to wait longer for deliveries of its new iPhone 14 model.

China confirmed Friday that President and ruling Communist Party leader Xi Jinping will make a rare trip abroad next week, but has given little indication of backing off on a policy the party has closely associated with social stability and the avowed superiority of his policies.

Source: The Associated Press