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China easing lockdowns amid growing fears over backlash

In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a medical worker writes their colleague's name on a protective suit to aid in identification as they work at Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province, Firday, Jan. 24, 2020. (Xiong Qi/Xinhua via AP/TNS)
March 29, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hubei are gearing up to ease a lockdown on tens of millions of people, as one more case of COVID-19 is reported by health officials.

Residents of Hubei, of which worst-hit Wuhan is the capital, will be allowed to travel from midnight Tuesday local time, after two months of lockdown.

However, the lockdown won’t be lifted until April 8 in Wuhan, where more than 2,500 people have died, with hundreds more deaths reported in Hubei.

An Wuhan resident surnamed Chen said preparations are already under way.

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“We are all getting ready to go back to work soon,” Chen said. “When I went out this morning I saw that the subway trains and the shuttle bus services are all operating.”

“I think it’s part of the preparations to end the lockdown.”

Not everyone is convinced that the danger from COVID-19 is past, however.

Online comments have repeatedly questioned the authorities’ refusal to publish the number of patients who have tested positive or relapsed after being discharged from hospital, or to give information on the number of asymptomatic spreaders of the virus.

A source close to the government who gave only a surnamed Zhu said the concerns are justified.

“It is actually the case that asymptomatic spreaders aren’t being counted as confirmed cases,” Zhu said. “They initially described them as recovered, then as recovering.”

“But they were never counted among the new cases.”

Relapses recorded

Zhu’s account is backed up by official guidelines, which require more than just a positive test for the coronavirus to make a confirmed case diagnosis.

The scientific journal Nature reported earlier this month, citing health experts in Wuhan, that asymptomatic individuals who test positive for the virus can turn out to be “super-spreaders.”

Zhu also said hospitals in Wuhan are now seeing a ongoing positive tests or relapses in people previously asymptomatic or discharged as “recovering.”

“Most hospitals won’t take them, and the designated hospitals say they have to get the approval of the command center in their local neighborhood committee before they can be admitted,” he said.

Publicly available figures have shown that around 14 percent among previously discharged patients in Wuhan remain positive for the virus, while figures from the Hubei Provincial People’s Hospital showed a rate of more than 20 percent.

Individual hospitals have reported positive tests of around 44 percent of those previously discharged.

Zhu said the decision to lift restrictions and declare victory over the virus is primarily a political one.

“They have to tell everyone to rest assured and go back to work … that can’t not happen, even if it means some people are going to die,” he said.

“The news has, of course, leaked online, and that’s why the Wuhan cyberspace administration has ordered all posts on the matter to be deleted,” Zhu said.

Low chance of repeat infection?

Zhong Nanshan, top epidemiologist and coronavirus epidemic adviser to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said that large numbers of patients have tested positive for the coronavirus after being discharged from hospital, but dismissed concerns that they remain highly infectious.

“These patients have already produced IgG antibodies, which have a strong neutralizing and killing effect on the coronavirus.” Zhong said in comments reported by Caixin.

“For most of these patients, the chance of repeat infection is very small,” he said. “Only a few have not gone on to make a full recovery because their immune system is weak, and for them, the risk of reinfection can’t be ruled out.”

Repeated calls to the Wuhan Epidemic Prevention Command Center rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.

There were also stringent quarantine measures applied to travelers from Hubei — who like all Chinese nationals have their hometowns displayed on their ID cards — by authorities in other parts of the country.

It was unclear whether those restrictions would also be lifted.

The authorities have already begun allowing some 120,000 migrant workers who had come home to Hubei for Lunar New Year and become stranded there to leave to return to their jobs in manufacturing hubs like Guangdong and Zhejiang.

In Beijing, the municipal government ordered parts of the Great Wall to reopen, as some restaurants also reopened but with social distancing requirements in place and tables spaced more widely apart.

Anyone arriving in the Chinese capital from overseas will be forced to undergo 14 days as well as a test for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Shenzhen reopens businesses

The order came after the city announced 31 newly imported coronavirus cases: 14 from Spain; 12 from the U.K.; two from the U.S.; and one each from Mexico, Norway and Greece.

Of those 15 were students, and two were children. Some were Chinese nationals returning home, the municipal government said in a statement on its website.

In the southern city of Shenzhen, the epidemic prevention control center permitted the reopening of businesses and venues including beauty salons, laundries, repair shops, libraries and parks, as well as lifting restrictions on delivery personnel entering residential compounds.

A Shenzhen resident surnamed Yan said not many people were venturing out on Tuesday, however, and the authorities were issuing vouchers to encourage them to start shopping again.

“The Luohu district authorities issued 50 million consumer vouchers today, mainly for food and beverages,” Yan told RFA. “The purpose of the vouchers is to revitalize the restaurant and catering industry. They are trying to stimulate consumption.”

Migrant workers stranded elsewhere in China were still arriving on Tuesday in Shenzhen, where factories have yet to return to normal production.

A business owner who answered the phone at a hotpot restaurant in downtown Shenzhen said it had been open for business for two days now, but was requiring customers to wear a mask and submit to a body temperature check.

“Yes, we’re open — are you coming right now?” he said. “You can book, or you can just come right over.”

“You must wear a mask when you come here, and when you go into the room to have your temperature checked,” he said.

“Of course you won’t need to wear it when you eat, but the customers are all eating in private rooms.”

An employee at a karaoke venue had a similar message.

“You need to wear a mask and get your temperature checked,” the employee said.

Wuhan was placed under lockdown with no travel in or out of the city on Jan. 23, with restrictions extended to surrounding Hubei province in the days that followed.

The travel ban came as hundreds of millions of people took to trains, planes and roads to make it home in time for the Lunar New Year holiday.