China officials soften tone on Covid curbs amid protests

Chinese health officials are softening their messages about the dangers of Covid-19, urging 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 surveillance data have confirmed that the pathogenicity and virulence of Omicron mutant strains…are significantly weaker than the original strain and variant strains such as Delta,” Chang Zhaorui, a researcher at the Chinese Center for Control and Prevention, told reporters. Disease Prevention. .

As recently as last week, health officials were still emphasizing Omicron’s high transmissibility.

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It is unclear whether the soft messages will translate into concrete action by local officials bound by Beijing’s dual mandates to enforce Covid control 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 show of defiance in the country as the economic and social costs of sudden lockdowns and other restrictions escalate. They began on Friday in Urumqi, capital of the remote Xinjiang region, where some residents blamed months of lockdowns for contributing to 10 deaths during a wildfire there.

Chinese authorities on Tuesday stepped up controls on protesters, sending in police to prevent further gatherings, as state media reiterated support for Mr Xi’s tough strategy on the pandemic.

At the same time, Chinese health officials have responded to public outrage by recalibrating their message about the dangers of the virus.

When asked about the protests on Tuesday, Mi Feng, a spokesman for the commission, said authorities have adjusted Covid control measures to protect the population and the economy as the disease progresses.

Chinese state media echoed the change in tone. On Tuesday, the Beijing News, a newspaper run by the Communist Party, 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 the Covid restrictions are aimed at preventing the spread of the virus rather than controlling the virus. people.

Weifeng Zhong, a senior researcher at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said China’s new messaging efforts appear to be isolated and localized rather than a central propaganda campaign. “It seems that they are still sticking to the policy, but they are committed to doing it more gently,” Mr. Zhong said after attending Tuesday’s briefing.

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

Expectations for a gradual reopening rose inside and outside China earlier this month as health authorities issued a series of measures to ease some Covid control rules.

That policy adjustment likely played a role in the current protests because it raised expectations of normalcy before officials doubled down on containment measures when the numbers of Covid cases rose, said Neysun Mahboubi, a Chinese legal and political scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It was a perfect storm. Those previous relaxation measures, watching the World Cup, seeing people in the stands without masks, and then we have the fire [in Xinjiang]said Mr. Mahboubi. “It was a flammable mixture.”

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

In the coming months, if officials manage to increase the vaccination rate, it would suggest they are finally taking concrete steps to end the zero-Covid policy, Mr Mahboubi said.

Some Chinese, especially the elderly, felt less urgent to get vaccinated because China had managed to contain infections. Just over 90% of Chinese were fully vaccinated as of Monday, according to official figures, but among those aged 80 and over only 66% are fully vaccinated.

Write to Liyan Qi at [email protected]

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