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Just weeks ago, catching Covid in China meant going into government quarantine for an indefinite stay and locking up your entire residential building, keeping neighbors confined in their homes for days or weeks.
Now, as the country quickly loosens restrictions, millions of people have been told to keep working even if they are infected.
The cities of Wuhu, Chongqing, and Guiyang, and Zhejiang province, which are collectively home to more than 100 million people, recently issued directives to public sector workers marking the transition from preventing infection to allowing life and work to resume.
Chongqing and Wuhu officials said in similar statements posted on municipal governments’ websites that asymptomatic and mildly ill workers “can go to work normally after taking the necessary protective measures for their health and job requirements.”
Zhejiang province and health leaders gave similar instructions at a news conference on Sunday, with an official suggesting that key teams consider a rotation program “to ensure uninterrupted operation and maintain order when outbreaks are severe.” According to state media, Guiyang did the same on Tuesday.
The pressure to return to work comes as China relaxes rules on testing, quarantine and other epidemic policies, taking a dramatic step away from its costly zero-COVID policy.
for three years, Its strict approach has kept Covid cases and deaths in the country relatively low. But it also hurt the economy and people’s mental health.
A relentless cycle of epidemics and lockdowns has coincided with record youth unemployment, disruptions in supply chains, and a crater in the real estate sector, which accounts for nearly 30% of China’s GDP.
Meanwhile, from the mass lockdowns in cities like Shanghai, residents reportedly lacking access to food, essentials or even emergency medical care – scenes of chaos emerged that sowed deep resentment against the authorities and a rare wave of public protests in November.
The central government’s decision to move away from zero Covid earlier this month will no doubt bring relief to the struggling economy and frustrated residents. But the sudden U-turn was apparently made with little advance warning or preparation, resulting in a whiplash and confusion for many.
Under the back-to-work announcement on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, one person commented, “If you went out like this a few months ago, you would have been punished.”
Bonnie Wang, a fintech worker in Zhejiang’s industrial hub of Ningbo, told CNN that a colleague with Covid symptoms continued to work in the office with a high fever this week.
“I hope that when we face situations like this, our health comes first, then work.”
Ryan Manuel, founder of Bilby, a Hong Kong-based company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze Chinese policy, said it essentially has an “out of jail card” on local governments’ economic performance during the pandemic.
“What matters is your adherence to central Covid policy,” he said. “Economic growth numbers, all these different things you measure, boil down to: ‘We don’t have a Covid outbreak, everything is fine’.”
However, he added that the central government’s approach has changed as follows: “We will not give you this freedom… we will judge you on regrowth.”
This change in priority was clearly reflected in the government’s messages, with Chinese experts and state media downplaying Omicron’s seriousness and instead emphasizing the importance of the economic recovery.
Top leaders of the Central Economic Labor Conference, an important annual meeting that ends on Friday, said in a statement that stabilizing economic growth is a top priority for 2023. regulatory pressure that has plunged China’s largest private companies into chaos in recent years.
Manuel said that although the economy has been struggling for several years, Chinese leaders can now feel more confident in adjusting their policies after the closely watched Communist Party Congress in October.
Authorities across the country worked frantically to contain Covid cases before the highly sensitive leadership change that saw Chinese leader Xi Jinping emerge stronger than ever until his third term.
“You will not risk it before the Party Congress,” said Manuel. “But once the Party Congress is over, you won’t have that restriction.”
But this push for economic growth has come at a price, and this is evident as cases rise rapidly across the country, with widespread drug shortages and reports that crematoriums are struggling to keep up.
Under current conditions, a nationwide reopening could cause nearly a million deaths, according to a CNN calculation based on a study published last week by professors at the University of Hong Kong. The paper, which has yet to undergo peer review, added that the rise in infections will “probably overload many local health systems across the country.”
The extent of the virus’s spread is difficult to measure, given the rapid transition from mandatory testing to home self-testing. The complexity is that many of the restrictions and rules on returning to work differ at the local level.
Wang, who works in Ningbo, told CNN that a former colleague has not received any support from his superiors after he recently fell ill.
“You know what the first thing the company sent him was? It was his work laptop. That’s outrageous,” he said, “but maybe because I’m a worker, I empathize with workers the most,” although he understands that the business must go on.
As fears spread over the impending wave of cases, subway systems and streets have emptied in recent weeks, which is unusual for this time of year as China does not celebrate Christmas and most businesses are still open.
The capital, Beijing, is currently experiencing its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic, seeing just 2.21 million passengers on the subway on Monday, the subway reported in an online post – 58% lower than the average daily passenger numbers on weekdays from early October to early December. Similar declines were reported in other major cities, including Shanghai and Guangzhou.
This sense of apprehension was also reflected on the Internet, with many reacting to the new directives with haste.
“I think the local government that initiated this policy is extremely irresponsible,” said a Weibo post, where a related hashtag had more than 240 million views on Tuesday. “Asymptomatic and mildly ill patients can still be contagious … and many people have elderly relatives and children at home.”
Some took a more cynical tone, criticizing the decision for prioritizing the economy at the expense of workers’ welfare and demanding that their superiors have the same expectation.
“In other words, if you get sick, you will either have to take leave and cut your salary or keep working,” one Weibo user wrote.
Another said: “Sounds like putting money before life.”