HONG KONG — China announced the scrapping of some of its strictest rules designed to curb Covid-19 on Wednesday, a major step away from a strategy that has constrained daily life for almost three years and set off rare nationwide protests in recent weeks.
People with mild or asymptomatic coronavirus cases will be allowed to isolate at home, health officials said, while stringent testing requirements for some public places will be dropped.
The move amounts to a dramatic easing of the “zero-Covid” approach that has made China an outlier among the world’s major economies, helping to limit cases but imposing arduous controls on the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It comes after protesters in cities across the country demanded an end to the restrictions, a rare challenge to the ruling Communist Party and President Xi Jinping.
Officials have defended the policy as necessary to save lives in a country where the fragile health care system could be overwhelmed by uncontrolled outbreaks, touting China’s low death toll as evidence of the superiority of Communist Party rule.
But they had already begun easing restrictions before the protests began late last month, announcing 20 “optimized” measures on Nov. 11 that aimed to minimize the impact on the economy and society.
The protests were the biggest show of public unrest China had seen in decades, and were quickly put down by security forces. But local officials have since further eased lockdowns and testing requirements in an effort to address frustration with the restrictions, which have created an atmosphere of anxiety and undermined the world’s second-largest economy.
Social media users expressed relief but also ambivalence at Wednesday's announcement.
“To be honest, I don’t think there is anything to be happy about. I don’t feel anything. It’s mixed,” one person commented on Weibo, a popular social media platform similar to Twitter. “This virus is hard to prevent, and I have to fend for myself from now on.”
The National Health Commission said early Wednesday that those isolating at home would be subject to health monitoring and would be released after testing negative on the sixth and seventh days. Anyone whose condition worsens “will be transferred to a designated hospital for treatment in time,” it said in a statement listing 10 new measures.
Previously, people who tested positive for the virus were sent to centralized quarantine facilities regardless of the severity of their symptoms. Those facilities will still be available to people who do not wish to isolate at home.
The commission also said that proof of a negative PCR test and a green “health code” displayed on a smartphone app would no longer be required to travel between provinces or enter most public venues, aside from places like nursing homes, medical facilities, child care institutions and schools. Until now, many cities had required negative test results as often as daily in order to enter shopping malls or take public transportation.
The National Health Commission’s statement did not mention the protests or any official end to the “zero-Covid” policy. But it did prohibit the blocking of fire exits during lockdowns, which protesters had suggested contributed to the death toll in an apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi on Nov. 24. (Officials denied the allegation.)
Other measures announced on Wednesday included the lifting of restrictions on the sale of cold medications, which had previously required name registration in order to root out potential infections. Lockdowns will be limited to five consecutive days if no new infections are discovered, and must be highly targeted.
Echoing earlier remarks by top officials, the National Health Commission noted that the new omicron variant was weaker but more transmissible than previous variants of the virus. It also stressed the importance of inoculating China’s older population, whose relative undervaccination is one of the country’s biggest obstacles in transitioning to “living with the virus.”
Though still small by global standards, China has been reporting rising case numbers amid outbreaks driven by omicron. The National Health Commission said Wednesday there were 25,115 new infections nationwide, more than 80 percent of them asymptomatic.
The challenge for Chinese officials now is to prepare the public for potential infection with the virus after years of emphasizing its lethality. The hashtag “Pharmacists explain in detail how to treat omicron’s mild symptoms” has been trending this week on Weibo, which is tightly controlled by online censors.
Despite the eased restrictions, the likely explosion in cases means the pandemic will continue to loom large in the country where the virus was first detected in late 2019.
“Free?” one Weibo user said Wednesday. “In the past three years, from the age of 20 to 23, what I lost, only I know.”