Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for more effort and unity as the country enters a “new phase” in its approach to combating the pandemic.
“At present, the epidemic prevention and control is entering a new phase,” he said on Saturday in his first public comments on COVID-19 since his government changed course three weeks ago and relaxed its rigorous policy of lockdowns and mass testing.
“It is still a time of struggle, everyone is persevering and working hard, and the dawn is ahead. Let’s work harder. Persistence means victory, and unity means victory.”
China’s abrupt switch earlier this month from the “zero-COVID” policy that it had maintained for nearly three years has led to infections sweeping across the country unchecked.
It has also caused a further drop in economic activity and international concern, with Britain and France becoming the latest countries to impose curbs on travellers from China.
The switch by China followed unprecedented protests over the policy championed by Xi, marking the strongest show of public defiance in his decade-old presidency and coinciding with grim growth figures for the country’s $17 trillion economy.
In a televised speech to mark the New Year on Saturday, Xi said China had overcome unprecedented difficulties and challenges in the battle against COVID, and that its policies were “optimised” when the situation and time so required.
“Since the outbreak of the epidemic … the majority of cadres and masses, especially medical personnel, grassroots workers braved hardships and courageously persevered,” Xi said.
China will “always steadfastly advocate for peace and development … and unswervingly stands on the right side of history.”
‘Open the floodgates’
Stephen Vines, a journalist and a political commentator, told Al Jazeera from St Albans in Britain, that the way China changed its “zero-COVID” policy and how it is dealing with the new wave of COVID-19 infections is “a mess”.
He said the current crisis shows “the lack of preparation for having suddenly dumped the zero-COVID policy and open the floodgates.”
“This will literally lead to hundreds of millions of people being infected with COVID,” Vines added.
New Year’s Eve prompted reflection online about the zero-COVID policy and the effect of its reversal.
Across the country, many people voiced their hopes for life to go back to normal on social media, while others were critical.
Thousands of users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo criticised the removal of a video made by local outlet NetEase News that collated real-life stories from 2022 that had captivated the Chinese public.
Many of the stories included in the video, which by Saturday could not be seen or shared on domestic social media platforms, highlighted the difficulties the Chinese faced as a result of the previously strict COVID policy.
The wave of new infections has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes across the country, with lines of hearses outside crematoriums heightening public concern.
China, a country of 1.4 billion people, reported one new COVID death on Friday, the same as the day before – numbers that do not match the experience of other countries after they reopened.