China's deputy prime minister signals a shift in Covid stance as some lockdowns ease

Sun Chunlan said Omicron is less pathogenic as Beijing appears to be responding to the zero-Covid protests by easing some measures

One of China's most senior pandemic response officials said the country was entering a "new stage and mission" in the latest indication of the government's shift in approach after mass protests against its zero-Covid policy.

Sun Chunlan, China's deputy prime minister, made the comments to national health officials on Wednesday, according to state media outlet Xinhua. It came as several regions including Shanghai started to lift lockdowns despite the increasing number of cases.

"With the decrease in the pathogenicity of the Omicron variant, the increase in the vaccination rate and the accumulated experience of epidemic control and prevention, China's pandemic containment is facing a new stage and mission," Sun said.

Sun heard from a roundtable of health experts, who Xinhua said praised China's efforts before offering suggestions for "improving" current measures. He said China was also taking a "more humane approach" with its outbreak response. Sun, like health officials addressing the nation on Tuesday, did not name the "zero Covid dynamic" policy, instead emphasizing vaccinations and other measures.

Only in recent days have Chinese officials started stressing the lower severity of the Omicron strain of Covid-19. State media have also begun issuing assurances that the public need not panic over the variant. The shift in tone comes alongside a new vaccination push aimed at the elderly, which was announced on Tuesday. More than 90% of China's population has received at least two doses of the vaccine, but rates are falling sharply among the elderly demographic, especially those over 80.

China reported 36,061 cases on Wednesday, slightly down from 37,828 on Tuesday. Although the numbers are relatively high, several regions have started to relax restrictions.

On Thursday, 24 districts in Shanghai that were designated as "high risk" were exempted from the lockdown measures, state media said. This follows the easing of the lockdown in 11 districts of Guangzhou on Wednesday, although both cities reported an increase in the number of cases. The lifting of the lockdown represents an easing of strict measures that have been opposed by protesters. But while that may be a sign that complaints have been heard, authorities show zero tolerance for protests, and continue to track and in some cases detain people who take to the streets.

Zhengzhou, where employees at Apple supply factories staged an extraordinary strike to circumvent Covid restrictions in recent weeks, has also eased restrictions. State media also reported Chongqing would start lifting the city's lockdown.

Hu Xijin, a former editor of the nationalistic state media tabloid Global Times, and who remains a public commentator, noted the sudden change. "China is accelerating to roll over large-scale lockdown," Hu said on Thursday on Twitter.

Analysts say the change is a clear sign that the government is listening to protesters, even if it doesn't acknowledge them publicly and instead sends authorities to go after those who attended the protests.

The past week saw days of protests on a scale not seen in China for decades, as growing frustration with its zero-Covid policy coalesced into anger and grief after the deaths of 10 people in a building fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang.

China remains the last major country still committed to an elimination strategy in response to Covid-19. The policy worked early in the pandemic, keeping most of the virus out and the death toll minimal compared to other countries. But the more infectious variant emergencies have challenged and at times overwhelmed systems, resulting in frequent and sudden lockdowns, travel restrictions, and associated shortages including food shortages, secondary deaths, and economic damage.

Some of the rallies have also seen cries for democracy and the rule of law, and – in Shanghai – for leader Xi Jinping to step down. Observers say it is likely that those who protest against Xi and the government will face severe punishment as authorities seek to remind citizens of their zero tolerance for dissent.

The protests also coincided with the death of China's former leader, Jiang Zemin. The 96-year-old man, who was made head of the Communist party during the Tiananmen protests and then presided over years of economic expansion, died on Wednesday, state media said. The timing has made observers wary – there is a tradition in China of people using public mourning events for past leaders to express dissatisfaction with the current regime. This article was written by EDUKASI CAMPUS. 

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