TAIPEI, Taiwan — A day after China announced the rollback of some of its most stringent COVID-19 restrictions, people across the country are greeting the news with a measure of relief but also caution, as many wait to see how the new approach will be implemented.
Following nationwide protests last month against China’s harsh anti-pandemic policies, the government announced Wednesday it was easing some of the strictest measures. Among the most significant changes is that people who test positive for COVID-19 but show no symptoms, or only mild symptoms, can now stay at home rather than being forced into a government field hospital.
Online, government ministries and hospitals are already switching their messaging about how to deal with COVID-19 at home if one gets sick, marking an abrupt 180-degree turn from its policy before Wednesday, when it required all who tested positive to be taken to a government field hospital, a temporary facility built to treat COVID-19 patients.
A team working for a prominent government doctor, Zhang Wenhong, put out a lengthy explainer Thursday on the virus, emphasizing the vast majority of cases won’t require hospitalization and noting that the virus is here to stay.
“The past three years have made us not want to come in contact with the virus … but actually in human society, there are thousands of microorganisms,” the team at Huashan hospital in Shanghai wrote. “Inadvertently, every year we will get sick briefly because we’ve been infected by several of these.”
Still, experts were careful to emphasize this was not the end of COVID-19 containment.
“It is not that we are going to lie flat. Precision prevention must be still adhered to,” said Yu Changping, a doctor in the department of respiratory medicine in the People’s Hospital of Wuhan University. “The opening is an irreversible trend in the future because most people have been vaccinated and there has been a lower number of serious illnesses.”
Outside experts warned that China will face a challenging first wave, as the loosened measures will likely lead to more infections among a population with little immunity against the virus.
“Every country in experiencing their first wave will face chaos, especially in medical capacity, and a squeeze on medical resources,” said Wang Pi-sheng, Taiwan’s head of COVID-19 response, on Thursday. Wang said Taiwanese living in China could come home for medical treatment, especially if they’re elderly or at high risk.
In Guangzhou, a metropolis in southern China that had seen rising case numbers the past few weeks, measures have been relaxed in recent days, which came as a relief to Jenny Jian, a 28-year-old resident.
“On my way to the gym today, I didn’t have to scan the health code at all,” she said, referring to the QR codes that people have been required to display to show whether they have COVID-19 or are a close contact. “It was implemented very quickly. But policy is one thing. The main thing is to see what the experience is when I step out the door.”
In Chongqing, another metropolis with rising infections, people were rushing to buy cold medicines. In Beijing, some pharmacies ran out of common cold medications, facing the same demand.
City residents in Chongqing who need PCR tests for work are now facing long lines after neighborhood PCR testing points shut down last week amid the relaxation of measures.
Many are cautious about whether the restrictions will stop completely and if new measures will be carried out properly.
“All the policies are there, but when it gets to the local level, when it gets to the sub-district level, your neighborhood, it’s a complete mess,” said 65-year-old Yang Guangwei, a retiree who lives in Beijing. Yang said many people are dissatisfied with the way national-level policies have been carried out in their neighborhoods.
The new measures also mandate fewer PCR tests, noting the tests must be targeted at those in high-risk industries and not entire districts. At the height of some lockdowns, many cities carried out PCR tests daily. In recent months, Beijing and Shanghai residents had to take a PCR test every two or three days just to be able to go around the city.
One Beijing resident who only gave his family name, Qian, out of concern for discussing government policy, said that those who needed to get tested will still do so.
“They say don’t test, but the workplace still requires it. That’s contradictory,” Qian said of his own experience.
Underneath the official announcement of rollbacks by state broadcaster CCTV, social media users also expressed skepticism.
“Can colleges be normal again? Can they be unsealed?” read one comment with 37,000 likes.
Some asked whether certain cities would get rid of their quarantine-upon-arrival measures, as mandated in the national policies announced yesterday.
Others were more positive.
“I haven’t traveled in so long!” a user wrote on Weibo.
Associated Press news assistant Caroline Chen in Guangzhou, researcher Yu Bing in Beijing and AP videojournalist Johnson Lai in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.