Chinese students return home amid COVID travel fears

Some Chinese universities say they will allow students to complete the semester from home in hopes of mitigating the potential of a larger COVID-19 outbreak during the travel rush of the Lunar New Year in January.

It was not clear how many schools participated, but universities in Shanghai and nearby cities said students would be given the choice of either returning home early or staying on campus and taking a test every 48 hours. The Lunar New Year, which falls on January 22 this year, is traditionally China’s busiest travel season.

Universities have been the scene of regular lockdowns over the past three years, occasionally leading to clashes between authorities and students confined on campus or even in their dormitories.

Tuesday’s announcements came as China begins to relax its strict “zero-COVID” policy, which would allow people with mild symptoms to stay at home rather than be sent to a quarantine center, among other changes that followed widespread protests.

As of Tuesday, China stopped tracking some trips, reducing the likelihood of people being quarantined for visiting COVID-19 hotspots.

The move follows the government’s dramatic announcement last week that it was ending many of the strictest measures, after three years of imposing some of the world’s toughest virus restrictions.

Last month, protests over the restrictions in Beijing and several other cities grew into calls for leader Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step down — a level of public discord not seen in decades.

While the relaxations have been met with relief, they have also raised concerns about a new wave of infections that could potentially overwhelm healthcare systems in some areas.

The easing of measures means a sharp drop in testing, but cases still appear to be rising rapidly, with many testing themselves at home and staying away from hospitals. China reported 7,451 new infections on Monday, bringing the country’s total to 372,763 — more than double the October 1 level. It has recorded 5,235 deaths — compared to 1.1 million in the United States.

The figures provided by the Chinese government have not been independently verified and questions have been raised about whether the ruling Communist Party has tried to minimize the number of cases and deaths.

The US consulates in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang and the central city of Wuhan would offer emergency services from Tuesday “in response to the increased number of COVID-19 cases,” the State Department said.

“Mission China is making every effort to ensure that full consular services are available to U.S. citizens residing in the People’s Republic of China, but further disruptions are possible,” said an email, which included the initials of China’s official name. , the People’s Republic of China.

Xi’s government is still officially committed to stopping virus transmission, the last major country to try. But the latest moves suggest the party will tolerate more cases without quarantines or closing travel or businesses as it scales down its “zero-COVID” strategy.

Amid the unpredictable reports from Beijing, experts warn there is still a chance the ruling party could reverse course and re-impose restrictions if a large-scale outbreak ensues.

The policy change comes after protests broke out on November 25 after 10 people died in a fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi. Many wondered if COVID-19 restrictions were hampering rescue efforts. Authorities denied the allegations spread online, but protesters expressed long-standing frustration in cities like Shanghai, which have faced severe lockdowns.

The party responded with massive violence and an unknown number of people were arrested at the protests or in the days following.

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