China’s U-turn on COVID-19
This article was originally published in Italian in Panorama on 22nd Dec 2022.
Please note that this is a courtesy translation of the Italian language article originally published in the Panorama Magazine Issue at: https://www.panorama.it/news/dal-mondo/cina-covid
After a hectic few months of city-wide lockdowns nationwide, China has made a swift turnaround and has begun tweaking its approach to COVID-19 control measures.
The sweeping changes indicate China is finally moving away from its zero-Covid policy and looking to "live with the virus" like the rest of the world. We shall examine the specificities of the latest policies in place, their effect on the ground as well as the path forward for China’s gradual re-opening.
The Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council announced in early December, 10 Prevention and Control Measures to Further Optimize COVID-19 Response (The Measures), which include lifting COVID testing and health code requirements for domestic cross-regional travelers and scrapping negative nucleic acid results and health code requirements for entering public places. Covid-19 testing booths have largely been removed, with hospitals also no longer providing such a service as universally performed in the past 3 years.
A more recent and profound change that occurred in December is the removal of the so-called digital travel code. After the initial outbreak, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology organized the public service for COVID prevention which uses mobile phone positioning to determine which areas users have visited.
The digital travel code provided relevant departments to judge the “risk” of a person through his or her trip based on the travel record of the place where they have stayed for more than 4 hours in the past 14 days, effectively allowing, or restricting entry to public areas, including hotels, restaurants, residential areas, which since December 13th, has been decommissioned from use.
Optimized Response to Positive COVID-19 Cases
With these drastic changes coming mere days after many major cities have been released from lockdown, daily cases have understandably been hovering near all-time highs, and Chinese Officials have also begun to tone down language around the dangers of COVID-19. For example, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister, Sun Chunlan, who led the “war against COVID-19” assured that China is entering a “new phase” of the pandemic where the virus’s viral potency has weakened.
People with COVID-19 are now able to isolate at home rather than in state facilities if they have mild or no symptoms. With home quarantine guidelines posted by official state media a landmark move that marks a break from official guidance to send such people to central quarantine, as up until very recently, positive cases and anyone who was a close contact, would be taken to quarantine camps. This guideline had been deeply unpopular with many protests across the country to in order for the “Zero COVID” policy to be changed.
The Conditions for Effective Re-Opening
While the latest relaxation of policies domestically a positive signal to all living in China, many abroad are still very much expectant of more concrete changes regarding international travel and integration with China for any kind of pre-pandemic normality to be obtained.
Liang Wannian, head of the anti-COVID expert group of the National Health Commission, pointed out to get back to normal pre-pandemic life but there are certain conditions for achieving this goal. Some of which have already been met, most notably the infectivity and pathogenicity of the virus becoming weaker with the Omicron variant. However, the popularization of vaccines, despite being high amongst the public (68.86 %), is still not ideal amongst the elderly population.
China's National Health Commission have stressed the need to accelerate the vaccination of elderly people. "All localities should adhere to.... focus on improving the vaccination rate of people aged 60-79, accelerating the vaccination rate of people aged 80 and above, and making special arrangements…". Such arrangements have come in the form of vaccination sites specifically rendered for the elderly as well as staff trained to assist elderly patients.
Effective medication for the virus as well as the increase of medical facilities has also been touted as prerequisites for the return to normality and as the Chinese pharmaceutical giant China Meheco Corp has signed an agreement to supply Pfizer's COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid in the Chinese mainland, all signs point to a swift resolution sooner rather than later.
The recommendations of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China on the series of COVID-19 easing measures issued by the Chinese national authorities have always been consistent in promoting vaccination among the entire population, in particular among the elderly and the most vulnerable, to safeguard public health and in introducing vaccination based on mRNA vaccines and antiviral drugs produced abroad such as Pfizer or Moderna to facilitate the transition to full opening of the country, with international travel free from quarantine obligations.
The relaxation of COVID control measures in China represent an extraordinary turnaround for the country.
After a long pause, China seems ready for a full-fledged reopening with timing that was unthinkable up until very recently, if we consider that soon international students, professionals, managers, existing and potential investors, Delegations, diplomats and all those in between will be able to return to China without quarantine on arrival, perhaps a reality as early as next January.
Edited by: Att. Carlo D'Andrea, Vice President of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China