China removes tracking app as it relaxes strict ‘zero Covid’ rules

China will remove the requirement for travel tracking as part of an indefinite exit from the strict “zero Covid” policies that have fueled widespread dissatisfaction.

At midnight on Monday, the smartphone app will stop working, meaning residents’ travels will not be tracked and recorded, making them less likely to be forced into quarantine for visiting potentially pandemic hotspots.

China’s ruling Communist Party does not allow any independent party to verify, and such practices have been used in the past to suppress freedom of movement and expression. It is part of an application suite that contains the health code that has not yet been disabled.

The move comes after the government announced last week that it is ending many of the most brutal measures. This follows three-year lockdowns, travel restrictions and quarantines for those moving between provinces and cities, mandatory testing, and requirements to show a clean health report for access to public spaces.

In Beijing and several other cities last month, protests against the restrictions turned into calls for leader Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step down, at a level of public political expression not seen in decades.

While it was met with relief, the relaxation has also sparked concerns about a new wave of infections potentially crushing healthcare resources in some areas.

The Xi government is still officially determined to stop the virus infection, the last major country to try. But recent moves suggest that the party will tolerate more cases without quarantines or closing travels or businesses as it ends its “zero Covid” strategy.

Faced with an increase in Covid-19 cases, China is setting up more intensive care facilities and trying to strengthen hospitals’ ability to deal with severe cases. At the same time, the government turned the tide by allowing those with mild symptoms to recover at home rather than being sent to field hospitals notorious for overcrowding and poor hygiene.

Reports on the Chinese internet, which is tightly controlled by the government, sought to reassure a nervous public, stating that restrictions would continue to be lifted and travel, indoor dining and other economic activities would soon return to pre-pandemic conditions.

Chinese leaders have long lauded “zero Covid” for keeping the number of cases and deaths much lower than in other countries, but health officials now say the most common type of omicron poses much less of a risk.

China Shanghai Covid 19 Patient Recovery - Apr 23, 2022
At midnight on Monday, the smartphone app will stop working, meaning residents’ trips will not be tracked and recorded.Xinhua via Shutterstock

Amid the sharp decline in the number of tests, China only announced about 8,500 new cases Monday, bringing the country’s total to 365,312 with 5,235 deaths – more than double the level since Oct. This compares to 1.1 million Covid-19 deaths in the United States.

Protests broke out after 10 people were killed in a fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi on 25 November. Many believed that the Covid-19 restrictions may have hindered recovery efforts. Authorities denied the allegations circulated online, but demonstrators expressed long-standing frustration in cities like Shanghai that have suffered severe lockdowns.

The party responded with a great show of strength, and an unknown number of people were arrested in the protests or in the days that followed.

Amid the unpredictable messages from Beijing, experts warn that the ruling party has a chance to reverse course and re-impose restrictions should a large-scale epidemic break out.

Last week’s announcement gave local governments significant space to appoint their own regulations. For example, most restaurants in Beijing still require a negative test result in the last 48 hours, and the rules are even stricter for government offices.

Despite the lack of government data, uncertainty and rising cases have forced the cancellation of events from foreign embassy holiday parties to the Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix car race in Shanghai next spring.

Meanwhile, pharmacies in Hong Kong reported that customers supplying their relatives in mainland China were using Panadol and other cold, flu, and headache medications, according to Lam Wai-man, head of the pharmacy trade association in the semi-autonomous city in southern China. Which has already lifted most of the Covid-19 restrictions.

“Everyone on the mainland wants to buy some pills to keep at home,” Lam said.

Alan Cheung, owner of the Sands Pharmaceutical Store in the Wan Chai area, said he receives about 10 questions from mainland residents about flu medications each day. “Normally nobody asks me about this type of product,” Cheung said.

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