‘Zero Covid,’ Once Ubiquitous, Vanishes in China’s Messy Pivot

A day after China’s ruling Communist Party announced the widespread abolition of “Covid-free” restrictions that have strangled the economy and changed lives in the country, the propaganda machine on Thursday began the daunting task of promoting a bold historical review.

While the rest of the world concluded months ago that the coronavirus was becoming less dangerous, Beijing took this development as breaking news to explain its abrupt decision. to lift the blockade orders that have sparked widespread protests. In doing so, it also places a high-risk bet that vaccination rates in China are enough, or will soon be achieved, to prevent a severe outbreak from flooding the nation’s hospitals.

Wang Guiqiang, a medical expert, told reporters in Beijing at a press conference on Thursday: “The pathogenicity of the Omicron coronavirus strain has now been greatly reduced. “Everyone should treat it with a normal heart — no need to worry or even fear.”

The health commission has released details on how residents should isolate at home if they test positive, rather than at a hospital. Workers began to demolish the test booths. Officials have detailed new limits on when and how local governments can impose lockdowns.

For months, commentators and pundits in state media have raised Omicron’s threat to justify Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s strict policy of blockade, quarantine, and quarantine. Series and testing have disrupted daily life.

“They know how serious Omicron is, but they don’t want to tell people the truth. Instead, they started exaggerating the severity of the epidemic, virulence, to justify a ‘no Covid’ policy,” said Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert and senior fellow at Council on Foreign Relations, said.

“Suddenly you have all these experts popping up to explain why this policy easing is necessary,” he said, referring to health officials whose messages revolved around the pandemic. has changed dramatically in recent days.

China’s jarring, shocking change of narrative around Omicron points to the challenge facing the party as it tries to prevent this week’s sudden “no Covid” renunciation from being construed as an admission of defeat. and a stain on Xi’s legacy. For years, China has offered a triumphant narrative of a top-down approach to eliminating infections, saying only the Communist Party, under Xi’s leadership, has the will to do so. and the ability to save lives.

Government changes announced on Wednesday – this would limit closures and eliminate mass mandatory quarantines and hospitalizations for most cases – the equivalent of a “zero Covid” reversal in the face of public outcry and spending economic costs are increasing. But the party is deploying its full force of propaganda and censorship to portray the transition as part of the plan.

More importantly, state media appear to be deflecting the policy shift away from Mr. Xi, in stark contrast to the summer of 2020 when they highlighted Xi’s claim of victory over Covid as restrictions imposed infection control. Even the term “zero Covid” has suddenly disappeared from official statements and comments by officials.

Dali Yang, a professor at the University of Chicago, said exposing China to a highly contagious outbreak was not the success Beijing hoped to achieve. “They realize that this is not something to celebrate,” he said. “Reopening has taken too long, and praising Xi could very well be counterproductive.”

Pictures and videos posted on China’s social media and state media show the rapid dismantling of some of the most feared or despised features of “no Covid” controls on the Internet. across the country. Workers removed signs indicating mass testing sites and tore down posters restricting subway use to those who tested negative for Covid. The prefabricated makeshift hospitals, which Beijing once touted as proof of mobilisation but which quickly became a symbol of the state’s power to detain citizens, have been demolished.

Internet censors seem to be trying to cross a thin line. Xiao Qiang, an expert on moderation at the University of California, Berkeley, said that since the new policy was announced on Wednesday, moderators have been trying to remove posts and comments calling for compliance with the policies. strict “Covid-free” measures or advocate the complete removal of restrictions.

“The government really turned 180 degrees, but did not allow the public to call it a complete failure of the previous policy,” said Mr. Xiao. “Essentially, it also wants to control the narrative that what the government has done is right and that the new policy change is not a direct result of the protests.”

For the party, the strategy of downplaying the threat of the virus is a gamble because it is difficult to predict what China will do as the virus continues to spread unabated. But health officials are worried about a surge in infections leaving the country’s hospitals overwhelmed, especially after nearly three years requiring anyone who tests positive to be hospitalized. .

In a speech reported Wednesday by China Youth Daily, a Communist Party newspaper, a former infectious disease official predicted that up to 90% of the population could eventually be infected with Covid. Feng Zijian, former deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said officials must quickly accelerate vaccination, especially in the elderly, and prepare the health care system for a large number of patients.

Spreading the message that most cases won’t need any medical treatment can help hospitals sort it out. On Thursday, China’s national health commission issued a plan to allow Chinese to use store-bought rapid antigen tests instead of relying on government-run PCR tests that are banned. widely criticized. The plan says residents who test positive for self-administered tests can choose to isolate at home.

Many ordinary Chinese seem to be bracing themselves for a widespread outbreak. On Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform, people have been sharing home isolation tips. People started stocking up on medicines and painkillers, including ibuprofen and acetaminophen, which seems to have pushed up prices in stores.

At the same time, many Chinese were quick to point out the sudden change in party policy. On Weibo, users mocked experts who were enlisted to justify the central leadership’s decisions. Chief among them is Liang Wannian, chief scientist working with the World Health Organization on studies on the origins of the pandemic. (For months, Mr. Liang talked about the dangers of the Omicron variant, but told reporters Wednesday that the virus “has now become milder.”)

“People persist in disseminating science to experts,” one post went viral on social media. “Experts have finally realized that Covid is less serious than the flu.”


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