China drops travel ban as ‘Zero-Covid’ eases

BEIJING (AP) — China will drop a travel-tracing requirement as part of an uncertain exit from its strict “zero-Covid” policies that have sparked widespread discontent.

At midnight on Monday, the smartphone app will stop working, meaning residents’ trips won’t be traced and recorded, reducing the chance of them being quarantined for visiting epidemic hot spots. China’s ruling Communist Party does not allow any independent parties to conduct verification, and such apps have been used in the past to suppress travel and free speech. It’s part of the suite of apps that includes the health code, which hasn’t been disabled yet.

The move follows the government’s announcement last week that it was ending the most stringent measures. It follows three years of lockdowns, travel restrictions and quarantine of people moving between provinces and cities, mandatory tests and requirements to show a clean bill of health to access public areas.

In Beijing and other cities last month, protests over the restrictions escalated into calls for the resignation of President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party at a level of public political expression not seen in decades.

Despite the relief, the easing has also fueled concerns about a new wave of infections that could strain health care resources in some areas.

Xi’s government is still officially committed to stopping the spread of the virus, the last major country to try. But the latest moves suggest the party will tolerate more cases without curtailing its “zero-Covid” strategy, without isolating or shutting down travel or businesses.

Faced with a surge in COVID-19 cases, China is building more intensive care facilities and trying to strengthen hospitals’ capacity to deal with severe cases.

At the same time, the government reversed course by allowing people with moderate symptoms to recover at home, rather than sending them to field hospitals notorious for overcrowding and poor sanitation.

Reports on the heavily government-controlled Chinese internet sought to reassure a nervous public, saying restrictions would continue to be eased and that travel, indoor dining and other economic activities would soon return to pre-pandemic conditions.

China’s leaders have long praised “zero-Covid” for keeping the number of cases and deaths much lower than in other countries, but health officials now say the risk of the more widespread omicron strain is negligible.

Amid a sharp drop in testing levels, China reported only about 8,500 new cases on Monday, bringing the country’s total to 365,312 – more than double since October 1 – with 5,235 deaths. That compares to 1.1 million COVID-19 deaths in the United States.

Protests erupted on November 25 after a fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi killed 10 people. Many believed that the Covid-19 restrictions could hamper recovery efforts. Officials denied the claims that circulated online, but protesters voiced long-standing frustrations in cities like Shanghai that have endured strict lockdowns.

The party displayed a massive force and an unknown number of people were arrested during the protests or in the following days.

Xi’s government has pledged to cut spending and austerity after the economy shrank 2.6% from the previous quarter in the three months ended June. Forecasters say the economy will contract in the current quarter. Imports fell 10.9% in November, a sign of weak demand.

Some forecasters have cut their outlook for annual growth below 3%, less than half of last year’s robust 8.1% expansion.

Amid unpredictable news from Beijing, experts warn there is still room for the ruling party to reverse course and reimpose restrictions in the event of a large-scale outbreak.

Last week’s announcement allowed local governments considerable room to set their own regulations. For example, most restaurants in Beijing still require a negative test result received within the previous 48 hours and rules are even stricter for government offices.

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