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China eases restrictions in major move away from ‘zero-Covid’ after protests

Jennifer Jett is the Asia digital editor for NBC News, based in Hong Kong.

Olivia Guan contributed .

The announcement on Wednesday is the latest easing of restrictions after protesters in cities across the country demanded an end to a “zero-Covid” strategy that has made China an outlier among the world’s major economies. The strategy has been strongly backed by President Xi Jinping, who has touted China’s low death toll as evidence of the superiority of Communist Party rule.

Officials have defended the policy as necessary to save lives in a country where the fragile health care system could be overwhelmed by uncontrolled outbreaks. But they had already begun easing restrictions before the protests began late last month, announcing 20 “optimized” measures on Nov. 11 that aimed to minimize the impact on the economy and society.

The protests were the biggest show of public unrest China had seen in decades, and were quickly put down by the ruling Communist Party. But local officials have since further eased lockdowns and testing requirements in an effort to address frustration with the restrictions, which have created an atmosphere of anxiety and undermined the world’s second-largest economy.

The National Health Commission’s statement on Wednesday did not mention the protests or any official end to the “zero-Covid” policy. But it did prohibit the blocking of fire exits during lockdowns, which protesters had suggested contributed to the death toll in an apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi on Nov. 24. (Officials denied the allegation.)

Other measures announced on Wednesday included the lifting of restrictions on the sale of cold medications, which had previously required name registration in order to root out potential infections. Lockdowns will be limited to five consecutive days if no new infections are discovered, and must be highly targeted.

Echoing earlier remarks by top officials, the National Health Commission noted that the new omicron variant was weaker but more transmissible than previous variants of the virus. It also emphasized the importance of inoculating China’s older population, whose relative undervaccination is one of the country’s biggest obstacles in transitioning to “living with the virus.”

Though still small by global standards, China has been reporting rising case numbers amid outbreaks driven by omicron. The National Health Commission said Wednesday there were 25,115 new infections nationwide, more than 80 percent of them asymptomatic.