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Opinion: In China, knocking on the door no longer means what it used to

Editor’s note: Lars Hamer is the editor of Chinese lifestyle magazine, That’s. He has lived in Guangzhou, China since 2018. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Follow him on Twitter @LarsHamer1. Read more reviews on CNN.


It’s the blow that all the inhabitants of here dread. Early Tuesday morning, a sudden knock on the door of my apartment in Guangzhou city, southern China. Instantly, fear came over me; health workers in hazmat suits were ordering everyone down because a neighbor had tested positive for Covid-19.

I had good reason to worry. Just a month ago, a teacher friend of mine and his colleagues were sent to central quarantine after a student at his school tested positive for Covid-19. I feared the same thing would happen to me.

To my surprise, nothing like it. I took a Covid-19 test and disappointing, that was it. Even before my result was published, I was free to leave my house and go about my day, without any restrictions.

If this had happened a few weeks before, I, like my friend, would have been labeled a “close contact” and therefore would have been powerless to avoid the stranglehold of the quarantine facility.

Almost overnight, Guangzhou, a city of some 15 million people, transformed from a Covid-19 ghost town to the bustling metropolis I first encountered when I moved here there. five years old.

The Chinese government has never officially acknowledged the anti-zero-Covid protests that erupted following a fire that killed at least 10 people in an apartment building in Urumqi last month. But it’s hard not to see the recent overhaul of the national pandemic response as a subtle acknowledgment that mistakes have been made.

Just look at the new measure prohibiting the blocking of emergency exits in the event of confinement, for example. From now on, infected people can isolate themselves at home. Quarantine facilities will soon be a thing of the past.

It all looks like a light at the end of what has been a very long tunnel. Scanning QR codes every time I entered a building, the daily tests, and the constant thought that I might be sent to a quarantine facility for being a “secondary close contact” (being in close proximity to someone who interacted with a positive case), all dominated the majority of my time in China.

I haven’t seen my family in Sheffield, England, for three years, and countless friends have left China after getting tired of jumping through Covid-shaped hoops. Over the past two months, Guangzhou has faced its “most complicated outbreak ever”, as transmission of the virus continued despite lockdown measures.

I spent most of my days working late into the night because that was the only thing to do; non-essential businesses had closed and millions of people were confined to their homes. I too started feeling the tension and started considering leaving the country.

Then, in the space of a few days, this world of restrictions was literally dismantled. On November 30, the Covid-19 screening sites that had dictated our travels for so long were all closed. Shortly after, it was announced that closures would only be allowed in “high-risk areas”, allowing businesses outside those areas to resume. In addition, a Covid-19 test would no longer be necessary to enter.

It was a moment of pure disbelief. Guangzhou had nearly 8,000 cases that day, figures similar to those that triggered a citywide lockdown in Shanghai in April.

Over the next few days, the Guangzhou where I arrived in 2018 was almost back to normal. The streets were lined with people. Friends and families who hadn’t seen each other in months gathered in bars and restaurants, and QR codes were ripped from walls; our movements are no longer tracked.

Even with the new pandemic strategy, some restrictive measures remain. But there is no doubt that the fight against Covid-19 has entered a new stage.

For three years, the Chinese government has taught its citizens to fear the virus and that hiding behind lockdowns is the only way forward. Now, as the country rolls back lockdowns and stops testing its citizens so rigorously, the number of infections is almost certain to reach unprecedented levels.

State media has already started trying to change everyone’s way of thinking by downplaying the lethality of the Omicron variant. At the same time, a large vaccination campaign for the elderly is underway.

But what if Chinese vaccines, the effectiveness of which has been questioned, and suggested drugs do not have the desired effect? What if the likely spike in infections is accompanied by an increase in deaths? Already, some are wondering how many Covid-19 deaths the protesters will accept.

What is certain is that China is currently on the path to living with the virus, a path that the rest of the world took two years ago.

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