China pushes story of triumph over Covid

China pushes story of triumph over Covid

State media hail authorities' decision to end most restrictions, widespread not mentioned

Staff members remove signs guiding people to scan a health code, after the Chinese government withdrew the anti-Covid measure, at a subway station in Guangzhou on Wednesday. (Photo: CNS Photo via Reuters)
Staff members remove signs guiding people to scan a health code, after the Chinese government withdrew the anti-Covid measure, at a subway station in Guangzhou on Wednesday. (Photo: CNS Photo via Reuters)

Chinese state media have struck a triumphant tone over the country’s efforts to contain Covid-19, reflecting the government’s efforts to dilute perceptions that its shift away from the stringent approach was forced by public discontent.

“In the past three years, the virus has become weaker, but we have become stronger,” said the commentary that appeared on Thursday in the Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily and in local newspapers across the country.

“We got through the most difficult moment!” it added, before emphasising that the variant spreading in China has become less dangerous and hinting at economic reasons for making changes to President Xi Jinping’s strategy. “Epidemic prevention and development are two ends of a balance. Both are extremely important.”

The commentary also sought to portray policymakers as proactive in making the changes, while avoiding referring to the protests that broke out in cities across the world’s second-largest economy early last week.

“In the battle with the coronavirus, China has taken the initiative to adapt to changes and always puts the safety of people’s lives and health first,” it said.

In the near term, however, a rising number of illnesses and deaths are possible, even likely. Key challenges are low vaccination rates among the elderly, the authorities’ continuing refusal to import more effective mRNA vaccines, and low levels of immunity in the population because of low infection rates over the past three years.

The government also faces a major challenge convincing the country of 1.4 billion people that the mass testing, frequent lockdowns and strict travel curbs in place since early 2020 were worth the sacrifice now that it is radically changing course. As recently as mid-October, Xi himself publicly defended the strategy, saying it “protected people’s safety” while “balancing virus measures, and economic and social development”.

Anger over zero-Covid policies — which involved mass lockdowns, constant testing and quarantines even for people who are not infected — stoked unrest not seen since the 1989 pro-democracy protests.

On Wednesday, the government surprised the public by eliminating key tenets of its virus elimination strategy, including forcing infected people into quarantine camps, while also easing travel requirements and rules that required frequent PCR tests to enter most public venues.

There are signs the rapid change is giving some members of the public whiplash. On Thursday, screenshots appeared on Chinese social media critical of Liang Wannian, an epidemiologist who led China’s initial pandemic response.

They contrasted Liang’s statement on Wednesday, when he said that the current mutations of virus posed less of a threat than in the past, with remarks from April, when he said the death rate was 7 to 8 times greater than the flu. Liang also warned the public in April that “as soon as we relax and not care about the virus, it will result in many serious illnesses and deaths”.

One Weibo post contrasting screenshots of Liang’s remarks was captioned: “The Chinese people will remember you.”

There are other signs that the policy change is at the top of people’s minds now. Half of the top 10 trending topics on Weibo on Thursday were related to Covid-19. Many internet users, for example, were discussing what to do if they got sick and how ill people may not need to visit the hospital.

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