Young people wearing masks are seen at a student area of Beijing on May 16, 2020. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

For nine days, China has logged no local Covid-19 infection. Counties in the northern provinces of Hebei and Heilongjiang, in the grip of the virus at the end of 2020 when clusters threatened to spill into Beijing, have vanquished the outbreak. 

The nation now has no zone marked high or medium-risk of catching the virus after Hebei, Heilongjiang and Beijing swiftly cleared local cases.

Now, Beijing mouthpiece the People’s Daily is talking up the prospect of relaxing anti-pandemic measures across large tracts of the nation if the no-local-case streak can be sustained for 14 days, the typical incubation period. 

China has only 386 confirmed patients and carriers being treated and isolated, most of whom are imported cases or close contacts, according to the National Health Commission. 

The Health Times, a publication under the People’s Daily umbrella, claimed this week that a turning point is on the horizon and that this year, even without vaccines, people could expect to start going about their lives as normal. 

The paper quoted Zhang Boli, president of Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine who is also a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, as saying that such a turning point would emerge early next month, with the zero case trend set to last well into the second quarter. 

Zhang, who also sits on a State Council expert panel on combating Covid, added that with people’s lives going back to normal, there would be room to relax rules such as allowing full houses for cinemas, theaters and scrapping travel restrictions during major public holidays. He said that by the end of 2021, the time would be ripe to scrap the mask-wearing order on public transport in cities that have not seen any local case for 14 to 21 days. 

A Sinovac employee shows the company’s Covid-19 vaccine. Some experts in China say with local cases disappearing, it is less urgent to get jabs. Photo: Xinhua

The Health Times also suggested that mass immunization for a majority of cities across China was less urgent and could be further pushed back as people face “minuscule” infection risks, as long as any backflow of the virus could be staved off at airports and border checkpoints. The paper said this would allow time for domestic pharmaceutical firms to improve their formulas to tackle mutant strains emerging overseas and expand plants to beef up output. 

The NHC pledged free jabs for all Chinese at the end of last year, yet thus far no Chinese cities or provinces other than Beijing has announced any plan for a full vaccine roll-out to all residents. The Chinese capital, meanwhile, is progressively giving shots to dwellers in the lead-up to the parliamentary session in early March and the Winter Olympics Games in February 2022.     

Zhang’s sanguine take of the Covid situation in China contrasts with the high level of vigilance across Beijing and other gateway cities including Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. 

The NHC is monitoring closely if the week-long Lunar New Year break and the nationwide travel rush before and after the holidays would help the virus creep into these key urban centers that are transport nodes serving nearby provinces. 

Despite Beijing’s appeals against long-distance trips and quarantine and health screening red tape, about 200 million migrant workers across China were unfazed by checks and reduced departures and returned to their homes in the countryside during the New Year break. Many of them are now on their way back to work in coastal cities. 

There is no sign of social distancing as people in a mall in the eastern port city of Ningbo queue for giveaways. Some do not bother with masks. Photo: Asia Times
Temperature detection cameras scan passengers at Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport. Photo: Xinhua

For instance, Guangzhou South Railway Station has seen more than 120,000 daily arrivals this week, and the city has scrambled medical workers to conduct random checks on passengers to screen for asymptomatic carriers.

At the station, all passengers must show their green health codes, showing they have not been abroad for two weeks or come into close contact with any confirmed patient or carrier, based on mobile signal tracking and big data analytics. 

However, risks are always lurking. 

The Beijing Daily revealed on Wednesday that a Chinese ship crew member who returned to the country tested positive for the virus, only after taking his fourth nucleic acid and antibody test. 

Emerging from his two-week quarantine and returning negative results in previous three tests, he was allowed to get out and about and took a packed Beijing-bound train and rubbed shoulders with other passengers during the ride.

It was only after he got off the train in Jinan, capital of Shandong province, and volunteered to take the fourth test was he found to have caught the virus. Beijing’s municipal government is now taking no chances and locating all the passengers of that train and subject them to repeated tests. 

The NHC will convene a meeting on Friday for experts to review quarantine and testing protocols for passengers arriving from overseas, and the health authority may mandate an additional layer of tests and possibly three weeks of isolation for those returning from worst-hit countries, with a related country list to be updated accordingly. 

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