China wants Covid patients to go to work. The public is not so sure

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China, a thrice-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and its impact on world. Sign up here.

Hong Kong

Just a few weeks ago, catching Covid in China means you are quarantined by the authorities for an indefinite stay and your entire residential building is on lockdown, locking your neighbors in their homes for days or weeks .

Now, as the country rapidly relaxes restrictions, millions of people are being asked to keep going to work — even if they are infected.

Wuhu Citadel, Chongqing and Guiyang, and Zhejiang province, home to more than 100 million people, all recently issued directives for public sector employees indicate a shift from preventing infection to allowing resumption. life and work.

Asymptomatic and mildly ill workers can “go to work normally after taking the necessary protective measures for their health status and job requirements,” the notice said. Chongqing and Wu Ho authorities in similar statements posted on their municipal government websites.

Zhejiang provincial leaders and health have issued similar guidance in a press conference on Sunday, with one official suggesting that key groups review rotational schedules “to ensure uninterrupted work and maintain order during a severe outbreak.” Guiyang followed suit on Tuesday, according to state media.

The push back to work comes as China relaxes regulations around testing, isolation and other pandemic policies, in a dramatic move away from the costly Covid-free policy.

Within three years, Its rigorous approach has kept Covid cases and deaths in the country relatively low. But it was also devastating economy and people’s mental health.

An incessant cycle of outbreaks and lockdowns occurs simultaneously with take note unemployed youth, supply chain disruption and a crater of real estate sector accounts for about 30% of China’s GDP.

Meanwhile, scenes of chaos emerged from the mass blockades in cities like Shanghai, with residents reportedly being unable to access food, basic supplies and even emergency medical care – sowing deep outrage against the authorities and in November a rare wave of public outcry.

Covid control staff walk past a closed store near a community whose residents are being monitored for Covid on December 4 in Beijing.

The central government’s decision earlier this month to phase out Covid-19 is sure to bring relief to the struggling economy and frustrated citizens. But the abrupt turn seems to have been made with no preparation or warning, leaving many feeling dizzy and confused.

“A few months ago, if you went out like this, you would be sentenced,” one person commented on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, under the announcement to return to work.

Bonnie Wang, a fintech employee at Zhejiang’s Ningbo industrial hub, told CNN that a colleague with Covid symptoms continued to work in the office this week because of a fever.

“I hope when we face situations like this, our health comes first, and work second,” she said.

Ryan Manuel, founder of Bilby, a Hong Kong-based company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze China’s policy, said that during the pandemic, local governments have essentially had ” release card” based on their economic performance.

“It’s important that you adhere to the new Covid-centric policy,” he said. “The economic growth numbers, all these different things that you measure, they boil down to – ‘We don’t have a Covid outbreak, everything is fine.’”

However, he added, the central government’s approach has changed to: “We’re not going to give you that time… we’re going to reassess you on the rate of growth.”

This shift in priority is clearly reflected in the government’s messaging, with Chinese experts and state media downplaying the severity of Omicron and instead emphasizing the importance of Omicron. economic recovery.

Top leaders at the Central Economic Work Conference, an important annual meeting that concluded on Friday, said in a statement that stabilizing economic growth is a top priority for 2023. They also signaled that policymakers would loosen their control over the country’s private sector – a difference from with a regulatory crackdown that in recent years has plunged China’s largest private companies into turmoil.

And although the economy has struggled for several years, Mr. Manuel said China’s leaders can now feel more secure in adjusting their policies after the Communist Party Congress is watched. tight in October.

Officials across the country have been working frantically to contain Covid cases ahead of a highly sensitive twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle, witnessed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. emerge stronger than ever into his third term.

“You wouldn’t risk it before the Party Congress,” said Manuel. “But once the Party Congress is over, you no longer have that restraint.”

But this boost to economic growth comes at a heavy cost, something that has become clear as cases skyrocket across the country, with widespread drug shortages and reports of crematoriums struggling to cope. catch up.

Under current conditions, a nationwide reopening could lead to nearly a million people died, according to CNN’s calculations based on a study published last week by professors at the University of Hong Kong. The article, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, added that the increase in infections “will likely overwhelm many local health systems across the country.”

It is difficult to gauge how widespread the virus is, given the rapid shift from mandatory testing to home self-testing. Complicating matters is the fact that many of the restrictions and rules surrounding return to work vary at the local level.

Beds in partitioned rooms at a makeshift fever clinic, converted from a stadium, in Beijing, on December 20.

Wang, a worker in Ningbo, told CNN that a former colleague did not receive any support from his superiors after falling ill recently.

“Do you know what was the first thing the company sent him? It’s his work laptop. It’s outrageous,” she said, adding that while she understands the need for business to continue, “perhaps because I’m a worker, I sympathize with workers the most.”

As fear spreads over a wave of cases, the subway system and streets have been deserted in recent weeks, which is unusual for this time of year, given that China does not celebrate Christmas. birth and most businesses remain open.

The capital Beijing, which is currently experiencing its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic, had only 2.21 million subway passengers on Monday, the subway said in an online post. – 58% lower than the average daily passenger volume for the week of early October to early December. Similar declines were reported in other major cities, including Shanghai and Guangzhou.

This feeling of anxiety has been reflected online, with many reacting with alarm over the new directives.

“I feel that the local government making this policy is extremely irresponsible,” read a top post on Weibo, where a related hashtag was viewed more than 240 million times on Wednesday. Three. “Patients who are mildly ill and have no symptoms are still contagious… and many have elderly relatives and children at home.”

Some took a more cynical tone, criticizing the decision as prioritizing the economy at the expense of workers’ welfare and demanding that their superiors share the same expectations.

“In other words, if you get sick, you’ll have to take leave and deduct your salary, or keep working,” wrote one Weibo user.

Another commented: “Sounds like putting money before life.”


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