China will drop a travel-tracing requirement as part of an uncertain exit from its strict ‘zero-Covid’ policies that have sparked widespread discontent.
At midnight on Monday, the smartphone app will cease to function, meaning residents’ movements will not be tracked or recorded, potentially reducing the likelihood of them being forced into quarantine for visiting hotspots pandemic.
China’s ruling Communist Party doesn’t allow any independent parties to do vetting, and such apps have been used in the past to suppress travel and free speech. It’s part of an app bundle that includes the Health Code, which hasn’t been disabled yet.
The move follows the government’s sudden announcement last week that it was ending many of the most draconian measures. This follows three years of lockdowns, travel restrictions and quarantines for those moving between provinces and cities, mandatory testing and requirements that good health must be shown to access public areas. .
Last month in Beijing and several other cities, protests against the restrictions turned into calls for the resignation of leader Xi Jinping and the Communist Party, on a level of public political expression not seen in decades.
Although relieved, the easing has also raised concerns about a new wave of infections that could overwhelm health care resources in some areas.
Xi’s government is still officially committed to stopping transmission of the virus, the latest major country to try. But the latest measures suggest the party will tolerate more cases without quarantine or travel or business closures as it winds down its ‘zero-Covid’ strategy.
Faced with an increase in Covid-19 cases, China is setting up intensive care facilities and trying to boost the capacity of hospitals to treat severe cases. At the same time, the government backtracked by allowing people with mild symptoms to recover at home rather than being sent to field hospitals which have become notorious for overcrowding and poor hygiene.
News on China’s tightly government-controlled internet sought to reassure a jittery public, saying restrictions would continue to be lifted and travel, indoor dining and other economic activities would soon return. to pre-pandemic conditions.
Chinese leaders have long praised ‘zero-Covid’ for keeping the number of cases and deaths much lower than in other countries, but health officials now say the most common omicron variety has far fewer risks.
Amid a sharp drop in testing, China announced only around 8,500 new cases on Monday, bringing the national total to 365,312 – more than double the level since October 1 – with 5,235 deaths. That compares to 1.1 million Covid-19 deaths in the United States.
Protests erupted on November 25 after 10 people were killed in a fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi. Many believed Covid-19 restrictions may have hampered rescue efforts. Authorities have denied the claims circulated online, but protesters have expressed longstanding frustration in cities like Shanghai that have suffered severe lockdowns.
The party responded with a massive show of force, and an unknown number of people were arrested during the protests or in the days that followed.
Amid unpredictable messaging from Beijing, experts warn there’s still a chance the ruling party could backtrack and reimpose restrictions if a large-scale outbreak ensues.
Last week’s announcement left considerable room for local governments to assign their own regulations. Most restaurants in Beijing, for example, still require a negative test result obtained within the previous 48 hours and the rules are even stricter for government offices.
The uncertainty and seemingly rising number of cases – despite a lack of government data – has forced the cancellation of events from foreign embassy holidays to next spring’s Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix car race in Shanghai.
Meanwhile, pharmacies in Hong Kong have reported a run on Panadol and other cold, flu and headache medicines by customers supplying relatives in mainland China, according to Lam Wai-man, chairman of the pharmacy trade association in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city, which has already lifted most of its Covid-19 restrictions.
“Everyone on the mainland wants to buy pills to have in stock at home,” Lam said.
Alan Cheung, the owner of the Sands Medicine Shop in Wan Chai district, said he receives about 10 inquiries about flu medication from mainland residents every day. “Normally, no one would ask me about this type of product normally,” Cheung said.