Chinese officials soften tone on Covid curbs amid protests

Chinese health officials softened their coverage of Covid-19 risks and urged local governments to avoid unnecessary and lengthy lockdowns after protesters across the country denounced strict controls.

The Omicron variant has caused fewer deaths and less severe illness than previous Covid variants, a health official said at a news conference on Tuesday.

“International and domestic monitoring data confirmed that the pathogenicity and virulence of the Omicron mutant strains … are significantly weaker than the original strain and variant strains such as Delta,” Chang Zhaorui, a researcher at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters . .

In a rare display of defiance, crowds in China gathered for the third night as protests against Covid restrictions spread to Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. People held blank sheets of paper, symbolic of censorship, demanding the resignation of the Chinese president. Photo: Kyodo News/Zuma Press

Last week, health officials still stressed Omicron’s high infectiousness.

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It is unclear whether the softened messages will translate into concrete actions by local officials bound by Beijing’s dual mandates to impose Covid controls and ensure people’s livelihoods, researchers say.

Protests have erupted in major cities across China over President Xi Jinping’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19, an unusual expression of defiance in the country as the economic and social costs of sudden lockdowns and other restrictions escalate. They began Friday in Urumqi, the capital of the remote Xinjiang region, where some residents blamed months of lockdowns for contributing to 10 deaths in a fire there.

Chinese authorities tightened controls on protesters on Tuesday and sent police to prevent new gatherings as state media supported Mr Xi’s strict pandemic strategy.

At the same time, Chinese health officials responded to public anger by retuning their message about the dangers of the virus.

When asked about the protests on Tuesday, Mi Feng, a spokesperson for China’s National Health Commission, said authorities have adapted measures to combat Covid to protect the population and economy as the disease develops.

Chinese state media echoed the change in tone. On Tuesday, the Beijing News, a Communist Party newspaper, published interviews with several recovered Covid patients who said their symptoms were mild and had no long-term effects. Previous media coverage had highlighted the dangers of the virus.

An article published on Tuesday by the Zhejiang provincial government on social media platform WeChat titled “People First, Not Covid-Control First” said Covid restrictions are intended to prevent viruses from spreading, not to put people under keep control.

Weifeng Zhong, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said China’s new messaging efforts appear to be isolated and local rather than a centralized propaganda campaign. “They sound like they’re still adhering to the policy, but promise to be more careful about it,” said Mr. Zhong after watching Tuesday’s briefing.

Some investors are betting that China will ease its Covid-19 strategy soon, while others are taking a more cautious stance.

Expectations for a gradual reopening increased in and outside China earlier this month, as health authorities issued a series of measures to relax some Covid control rules.

That policy refinement likely played a role in the current demonstrations, as it raised expectations of normalcy before officials doubled down on containment measures as the number of Covid cases soared, said Neysun Mahboubi, a Chinese law and political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. .

“It’s been kind of a perfect storm. Those previous relaxation measures, watching the World Cup, seeing people without masks in the stands, and then we also have the fire [in Xinjiang]’ said Mr Mahboubi. “It’s been a flammable mix.”

In recent days, virus cases in China have surpassed the previous peak in April during the Shanghai lockdown. The country recorded more than 37,000 new cases of Covid on Monday, health officials said on Tuesday.

If officials succeed in increasing vaccination rates in the coming months, it could indicate they are finally taking concrete steps to end the zero-Covid policy, Mr Mahboubi said.

Some Chinese, especially the elderly, have felt less urgency to get vaccinated because China has managed to limit the number of infections. According to official data, just over 90% of the Chinese were fully vaccinated as of Monday, but only 66% of those over 80 are fully vaccinated.

Write to Liyan Qi at [email protected]

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