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News >  Nation/World

After fanning COVID fears, China must now allay them

Dec. 3, 2022 Updated Sat., Dec. 3, 2022 at 8:54 p.m.

Protesters march along a street during a rally for the victims of a deadly fire as well as a protest against China's harsh COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing on November 28, 2022.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
Protesters march along a street during a rally for the victims of a deadly fire as well as a protest against China's harsh COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing on November 28, 2022. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Keith Bradsher New York Times

For nearly three years, the Chinese government deployed its considerable propaganda apparatus to fan fears about COVID to justify large-scale quarantines, frequent mass testing and the tracking of more than 1 billion people.

As Chinese authorities now shift their approach to the pandemic, they face the task of downplaying those fears.

Until the past week, during which there were rallies voicing extraordinary public opposition to the stringent “zero-COVID” rules, government officials and state media were still emphasizing the most ominous medical news about the pandemic.

And just 1½ weeks ago, the vice premier overseeing the government’s COVID responses, Sun Chunlan, said that “anyone who should be tested must be tested, and no one should be left behind.”

But as local governments hurry to dismantle testing requirements and start hauling away curbside testing booths, Sun changed tack Wednesday.

“China’s pandemic prevention faces a new situation and new tasks, given the weakening severity of the omicron variant,” she said.

China faces a challenging moment in its pandemic response, experts say, in large part because of muddled messaging. The government has failed to take many proven public health measures, such as aggressive campaigns for full vaccination, leaving many citizens of the world’s most populous nation at risk.

In June, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, had personally affirmed that sacrifices were needed to stop the spread of COVID.

Beijing is rapidly moving to lighten the burden of COVID restrictions.

Some neighborhood committees are beginning to let residents stay home if they or their family members are infected, instead of transporting them to makeshift hospitals, vast stadiums or long rows of shipping containers – standard procedure since the early months of the pandemic.

Chengdu, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Beijing, Chongqing and Shenzhen have all lifted requirements in the past several days for residents to show negative COVID tests before taking the subway or entering other public places.

Guiding public opinion in a new direction will not be easy for China, because state media had effectively suppressed any suggestion that COVID might be manageable.

“Until recently, the experts were all geared to supporting the policy against COVID,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “The media is suddenly going all the way in the direction that the virus has mutated and is less pathogenic.”

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