BEIJING — Some Chinese universities say they will allow students to complete the semester at home in hopes of reducing the potential for a larger COVID-19 outbreak during January’s Lunar New Year travel rush.
The number of participating schools was unclear, but universities in Shanghai and nearby cities said students would have the option of returning home early or staying on campus and being tested every 48 hours. The Lunar New Year, which falls on January 22 this year, is traditionally the busiest tourist season in China.
Universities have been the scene of frequent closures over the past three years, sometimes resulting in clashes between authorities and students confined to campus or even to their dormitories.
Tuesday’s announcements came as China begins to relax its strict “zero-COVID” policy, allowing people with mild symptoms to stay at home rather than being sent to a quarantine center, among other changes that have followed by widespread protests.
Starting Tuesday, China stopped tracking some travel, potentially reducing the likelihood of people being quarantined for visiting COVID-19 hotspots. Despite this, China’s international borders remain largely closed and it is unclear when restrictions on inbound travelers and Chinese wishing to travel abroad will be eased.
The move follows the government’s dramatic announcement last week that it was ending many of the toughest measures, after three years of enforcing some of the toughest virus restrictions in the world.
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 – a level of public dissent 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.
With so many people staying home, the streets of downtown Beijing were eerily quiet on Tuesday. Small queues have formed outside fever clinics – the number of which recently rose from 94 to 303 – and at pharmacies, where cold and flu medicines have become harder to find.
Many mainland Chinese residents have become accustomed to ordering drugs from pharmacies in Hong Kong, which has already eased many restrictions.
The government of the semi-autonomous southern city took a further step on Tuesday, saying it would remove restrictions for arriving travelers that currently prevent them from dining in restaurants or going to bars for the first three days. It would also remove use of its contact tracing app, although vaccine requirements for entering places like restaurants will remain in place. The new measures come into effect on Wednesday.
The easing of control measures on the mainland means a sharp drop in mandatory testing from which daily infection figures are compiled, but cases 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 level on October 1. 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 sought to downplay the number of cases and deaths.
US consulates in northeast China’s city of Shenyang and central city of Wuhan will only offer emergency services from Tuesday ‘in response to rising case numbers of COVID-19,” the State Department said.
“The China Mission is making every effort to ensure that full consular services are available to US citizens living in the PRC, but further disruptions are possible,” an email message, using the initials of China’s official name, reads. People’s Republic of China.
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.
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.
The change in policy comes after protests erupted on November 25 following the death of 10 people in a fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi. Many have wondered if COVID-19 restrictions 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.