China’s Vice Premier Sun Chunlan who is also the most senior official responsible for its Covid response has said that the country is facing a “new situation” in epidemic prevention and control as the lethality of the Omicron virus has weakened. This is seen as a potential hint for a shift from Beijing’s “zero-Covid” strategy which has sparked days of nationwide protests and evoked strong support from the UN, the US and other nations. 

Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported quoting Sun, “With the decreasing toxicity of the Omicron variant, the increasing vaccination rate and the accumulating experience of outbreak control and prevention, China’s pandemic containment faces new stage and mission.”

This is for the first time that a senior Chinese official has acknowledged the change in the nature of the virus, in a softening of the rhetoric on country’s strong Covid-19 control measures. Interestingly, Xinhua did not mention “zero-COVID” even once in its report published on Thursday which has been a signature policy of President Xi and has drawn criticism internationally and domestically alike.

Sun’s remarks which followed the eruption of rare protests against the restrictions under zero COVID policy underlined the importance of constantly optimizing the country's COVID-19 response. “Measures for diagnosis, testing, admission and isolation must be constantly improved, immunisation of the whole population, especially the elderly, be strengthened, and the preparation of therapeutic drugs and medical resources accelerated.”

As China battled its worst Covid-19 outbreak in past three years including in major cities, such as Guangzhou in the south and Zhengzhou in central China, and Beijing in north. Mainland China has been reporting nearly 40000 daily new cases for many days. 

China recently announced a slightly relaxed pandemic stylebook known as the “20 measures”. Sun’s emphasis on incremental

adjustments to controls gives further credence to the viewpoint that Chinese leadership might relax its “zero-Covid” policy in near future and eventually do away with it. 

In another step towards tackling a major hurdle in reopening, China on Tuesday announced a vaccination campaign focused on getting the elderly vaccinated. More than 90% of China’s population has received at least two doses of a vaccine, but the rate drops sharply among elderly population, especially those over 80. 

The national health commission has recently instructed local authorities to build more hospitals that can treat patients with the virus at different degrees of severity, including increasing the intensive care beds.

State media reported Several Chinese cities further refine measures of mass COVID testing, lifted lockdowns and allowed businesses to reopen while still reporting new infections. Beijing authorities on Tuesday told hospitals to avoid closing important departments, such as emergency and maternity departments, even if they have been hit by COVID-19 cases. 

Authorities said hospitals must not turn down hemodialysis patients, pregnant women, children and patients seeking radiotherapy or first aid if they fail to present nucleic acid test results. The city government has also banned barricading building gates and residential-complex entries in high-risk areas, demanding that passages remain clear for medical transportation, emergency escapes and rescues – a lesson learnt from the Urumqi fire deaths, for which public pinned the blame on the lockdown under “zero-COVID” strategy.

Meanwhile, media reports said, police are continuing to track down the protesters and, in some cases, detain them. Protests which were most serious since 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests, alerted the government which sent the students back home from their university campuses to avoid any gatherings.

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