China’s Covid fatalities test commitment to relaxing restrictions

China’s first Covid-19 fatalities in six months and a sharp rise in reported cases are testing the government’s recent commitment to ease restrictions of its stringent Covid curbs.

Beijing reported three deaths from Covid-19 from Sunday to Monday. The victims were all over 80 and also suffered from multiple medical conditions, reported Beijing Evening News.

Beijing reported 962 new infections on Sunday, up from 621 a day earlier, and a further 316 cases for the first 15 hours of Monday.

The National Health Commission said on Monday it had recorded 27,095 local infections across the nation in the previous 24 hours.

“The city is facing its most complex and severe prevention and control situation since the outbreak of the coronavirus,” Liu Xiaofeng, the deputy director of Beijing’s municipal Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, told a media briefing on Monday.

People travelling into Beijing will be required to do daily tests in the first three days of their stay, and wait for the results before being allowed to leave their homes or accommodation, the city government spokesperson Xu Hejian told the same briefing. The new rules will be enforced from Tuesday.

Students in schools across several Beijing districts buckled down for online classes on Monday after officials called for residents in some of its hardest-hit areas to stay home. Many businesses were also closed. China National Opera announced it has cancelled all its concerts on Monday.

Beijing municipal health commission called for “the unity of thinking” and “unswerving implementation” of the “dynamic Zero Covid” policy. It urged people to guard against a resurgence of cases and said measures must be “strict”, appropriate and effective to reduce cross infections in society, calling on districts with high infection rates to allow flexible work arrangement and online teaching, and control the flow of people in public places and arrange for PCR tests, it said on its website.

The announcements came after Beijing declared its most significant easing of coronavirus measures to date on 11 November, including reduced compulsory quarantine times for international arrivals.

Several Chinese cities began cutting routine community Covid-19 testing last week, including the northern city of Shijiazhuang, which stoked speculation that it could be a testbed for policy relaxation. But late on Sunday, Shijiazhuang announced it would conduct mass testing in six of its eight districts over the next five days after new daily local cases hit 641.

Covid cases are also flaring up across the country, from Zhengzhou in central Henan province to Chongqing in the south-west. Guangzhou, a southern city of nearly 19 million people that is battling the largest of China’s recent outbreaks, ordered a five-day lockdown for Baiyun, its most populous district. It also suspended dine-in services and shut nightclubs and theatres in the city’s main business district.

But while the government told local authorities in the 11 November announcement to be more targeted in their clampdown measures and refrain from indiscriminate overenforcement of antivirus policies, senior officials and state media repeatedly insisted in past days that China’s “war” against the pandemic remains firmly in place.

Johnny Lau, an independent political commentator on Chinese politics, said he could not see how the restrictions would be relaxed in reality, as China’s top-down power structure and political culture means local officials would not refrain from overstrict implementation of virus control policies to avoid being blamed for cases surging.

He noted that after the announcement, many cities have even stepped up restrictions.

“They would rather be too strict than to shoulder the blame. The enforcers need to strictly implement [zero Covid] policies to keep their jobs and to remain politically correct; they won’t care about the impact on the population,” he said. “So even when the policy-makers say they are easing measures, they won’t relax in reality.”

Includes reporting by Reuters

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