Pedestrians ignore mask-wearing and social distancing rules as they flock to a night market. Photo: Weibo

Mainland China is perhaps the only major country in the world where life has, by and large, returned to post-virus normalcy.

Expect full houses when you step into upmarket hotels and cinemas in many Chinese cities, while malls and commercial precincts are also teeming with cashed-up holiday crowds. A hedonistic lifestyle has taken hold after fighting off a world-engulfing contagion that first erupted in the country. 

To most people, the sanguine atmosphere is reassuring, yet something is glaringly missing. The vigilance and compliance among the people, the potent weapon against the coronavirus that helped China become one of the first countries to vanquish the epidemic, is now long lost.

Chinese people were once lauded by World Health Organization experts for the prevailing culture of mask-wearing throughout the pandemic. Yet a mere eight months after Covid-19 started to do the rounds in the country, people there have consigned their stocks of masks and other protective and personal hygiene essentials to the scrapheap.

And, more often than not, temperature screening and identity verification in public venues, proven to be effective to tracing contacts in case of an infection, have been discontinued in many cities and the equipment is not manned and screens are not monitored. 

Beijing’s feat in suppressing the virus, for now, and the steady diet from state media about the upcoming advent of indigenous vaccines and mass inoculations have lulled the masses into the belief that the plague is over and that mask-wearing and social-distancing are no longer obligatory. 

This is happening at a time when the benefits of masks seem to have finally dawned on people in the West, particularly Americans.

People throng at an Apple Store in Shanghai, with few paying attention to social-distancing.
A night market in a CBD in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo brings out a large crowd. Photos: Asia Times

Beijing’s municipal government, having swiftly squashed a resurgence within the span of just a few weeks after it hit the city’s major food wholesale market in early June, has scrapped its mandatory order of mask-wearing and limits on the number of people allowed for outdoor gatherings as well as in indoor venues with good ventilation. 

The move, contradicting the National Health Commission’s non-compulsory guidelines on maintaining basic protection against the virus, is seen by many as further proof that the health crisis has run its course. 

“The move is premature and has sent all the wrong messages to the people … Even the National Health Commission is still reluctant to lower its response level,” a health expert with Shanghai’s Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention told Asia Times on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to speak to foreign media. 

“We are urging people not to slack off or pull down their masks as we are merely in a lull of the pandemic and the virus will rear its head again in autumn and winter.”

The epidemiologist fears Shanghai and the entire nation would be ill-prepared should a new wave of infections hit. If this happens, the virus may become even more contagious as the temperature drops, at a time numerous people in China have relaxed their vigilance or succumbed to “anti-epidemic fatigue.”

“Even if the government can respond to any flare-ups and order sweeping mask-wearing and lockdowns like those in force in January and February, the virus may have already infected its way through communities and cities much, much quicker than you think, now that people have let their guard down,” said the CDC expert. 

A massive crowd attend a music festival in Wuhan in August, four months after the original epicenter of Covid-19 ended its citywide lockdown. Photo: Handout

Zhong Nanshan, China’s top pulmonologist who heads an expert panel advising state leaders throughout the battle against Covid-19, has also prodded cadres nationwide to remain alert, keep people on their toes and police their behavior, even as Beijing has apparently pivoted to resurrecting the economy through more consumption. 

Zhong highlighted the risk of reinfection when addressing a seminar on Covid-19 at the end of last month. 

“Back in spring, we thought new cases worldwide would taper off when the northern hemisphere enters summer, but that has never panned out. There have also been confirmed cases of recovered and discharged patients catching the virus again. We can not afford to drop our guard, even though we have almost stamped out Covid since April, but the risks are lurking,” Zhong was quoted saying by China News Service. 

Officials elsewhere, nonetheless, are tempted to restore a resemblance of normalcy to keep the wheels of production and commerce running, taking cues from the way the Beijing city government has relaxed its anti-virus measures. 

Many still believe the nation will remain virus-free as long as China can stave off any back flows, having “banished” the respiratory disease from the country, where it first erupted in Wuhan before spreading worldwide. 

Since Wuhan was lifted out of its 76-day citywide lockdown in early April, Beijing has shifted the focus of its fight against Covid to the nation’s major aviation hubs as well as checkpoints along the mainland’s border with Hong Kong. 

Temperature detection cameras scan passengers at Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport. Photo: Xinhua

Stringent health screening measures are in place at international airports and border control points and all arrivals from overseas must undergo two weeks of medical observation in quarantine, on top of getting a negative test result before their journey in China.

Yet these vigorous enforcement efforts have still failed to stop the virus from creeping into the country. 

Major aviation gateways like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have seen their tallies of imported cases climb to a total 1,109 as of Friday, according to figures from the National Health Commission.

And, despite closing all but one border crossing to screen and quarantine those entering from Hong Kong, Shenzhen also had an outbreak in August which was linked to the current wave of infections hitting Hong Kong.

Other major maritime cities including Ningbo, Dalian and Qingdao have also found and isolated cases among the crews of ships. 

There is a fear of a spike of cases when the Civil Aviation Administration announced this week the resumption of more international routes between the three aviation hubs and countries still grappling with the disease including Pakistan, Cambodia, Israel, Greece and Canada. 

Read more: China rides a post-Covid consumption boom