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China rolls back some of its most controversial COVID restrictions

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

China on Wednesday announced a series of new steps to, quote, "optimize its approach to the pandemic." In reality, the government is moving away decisively from the draconian measures that have defined its zero-COVID approach for the past three years. And that also sparked angry street protests a couple of weeks ago. To bring us up to speed here, we're joined now by China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch. Hey, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: OK. So tell us more about what the government announced today.

RUWITCH: The government's National Health Commission released a 10-point plan. And one of the things it is - one of the things it did was state that the virus's ability to cause serious illness has diminished. This is something officials have only recently started to say, so it's pretty significant that was in there. It also included several policy changes, and there's a couple that I think are worth flagging. One is that from now on, people who test positive but are asymptomatic or don't have serious symptoms, which is the vast majority of cases in China these days, they're going to be allowed to quarantine at home. Until now, all positive cases were forced into centralized quarantine facilities. Testing is going to be cut back. And another thing is that these digital health codes that we've been talking about on smartphones that have become ubiquitous in China for contact tracing and showing test results, those aren't going to be required any longer to go into most buildings and for domestic travel.

CHANG: OK. So talk about, like, how significant this move is. How much of a U-turn is this?

RUWITCH: I really don't think it's an exaggeration to say that these are some of the biggest changes that we've seen in three years. I mean, they come after 20 others last month. I mean, in China, there's been this very real risk, for instance, of people in hazmat suits showing up at your house and hauling you or a family member off to quarantine against your will if you test positive without any recourse. I mean, that risk seems diminished now. And I can tell you from experience that it is a huge source of anxiety for people in China.

Also, looser rules on domestic travel are key. You know, health codes often restricted people from going from one city or province to another. Also, people just didn't want to take the risk of traveling because they feared, you know, getting to their location, being stranded by lockdown or thrown in quarantine. The changes that they're introducing now seem to have the potential to really help the economy, which I think is a key point. You know, the day before these rules were announced, top leaders met in Beijing to discuss the economy and to come up with plans for giving it a boost next year. And optimizing COVID controls was a big part of the discussion.

CHANG: What about vaccinating the elderly? Like, we keep hearing that vaccination rates among old people are pretty low in China, right?

RUWITCH: Yes, they are not as high as for others. The National Health Commission highlighted something that officials have been mentioning, which is the need to accelerate vaccination among people over 60. That age group is generally at risk and they have lower vaccination rates than others. People seem to be heeding the call. NPR spoke with a couple of folks at a vaccination center in Beijing just a couple of days ago who said it had actually been tough for themselves to get appointments because of demand. And more broadly, this sort of change in approach to the pandemic seems to be welcomed. Here's a man in Beijing we spoke with who wanted to be identified only by his surname, which was Xu.

XU: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: He says these changes have come pretty suddenly, but they're in line with what people wanted and what people have been hoping for, and they're a good surprise. He's also not afraid of COVID-19.

CHANG: OK. So tell us what we can expect in the next few weeks as China tries to implement these really big changes.

RUWITCH: Yeah. I mean, it's a shift underway in China now to living with the virus, and that is a huge change. And we've seen elsewhere that this means that case numbers will rise. And experts are pretty confident that they're going to rise to levels in China that they've never had to deal with before. So the question is really, how high and how quickly can the government lift the vaccination rate in order to minimize the fallout? China is really now in a race against omicron.

CHANG: That is NPR's John Ruwitch. Thank you, John.

RUWITCH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.