China's health authorities announced sweeping changes to the country's "zero COVID" policies on Wednesday, about a week after rare nationwide protests against draconian pandemic controls that separated families, forced people to quarantine outside their homes and appeared to be having mounting social and economic costs.
The National Health Commission published a 10-point memo detailing a series of measures rolling back some of the COVID-19 restrictions.
Among the highlights: Harsh lockdowns will be limited to targeted areas, such as a particular building or floor, as opposed to whole neighborhoods and districts; people who test positive for the virus can isolate at home rather than in overcrowded field hospitals; and schools can stay open if there is an infection, provided there isn't a wider outbreak.
Many testing requirements also have been scrapped.
"Relevant departments in all localities must further ... and resolutely correct the 'one size fits all' simplified approach," the commission said in a statement posted on its website.
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For the duration of the pandemic, now entering its fourth year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping's strict – and controversial – virus policies have been blamed for upending ordinary life, travel and employment while dealing a harsh blow to the national economy.
"Those not employed by the state have been hit particularly hard by zero-COVID measures. The strategy has intensified economic pressures, exacerbated rising levels of youth unemployment, and tested the patience of the entire country," Yu Jie, a China expert at the London think thank Chatham House, wrote in an opinion piece.
"Zero-COVID was once a signature policy to demonstrate the supremacy of China’s governance system and to meet the public expectation of pandemic control, but it has now left Beijing between a rock and a hard place," she said.
Increasingly, this approach stood in sharp contrast to anti-virus actions taken by most other countries, which have opened up in hopes of learning to live with the virus.
The protests spread to several large cities. They were the largest-scale public expression of discontent with China's government since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. They were triggered by a combination of rising public frustration with "zero-COVID" and a fire in a residential apartment building in western China that killed 10 people. Some residents later blamed lockdown procedures for preventing emergency responders from entering the building sooner, an allegation Chinese authorities denied.
In a bid to appease protesters, China had been gradually rolling back restrictions for several days. On Monday, commuters in Beijing and at least 16 other cities were allowed to board buses and subways without a virus test in the previous 48 hours for the first time in months, according to he Associated Press. The AP noted that the National Health Commission's statement made no reference to the fire, the protests or any formal end to "zero-COVID," which has been closely identified with Xi’s authority.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: China 'zero COVID' measures rolled back after protests