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EDITORIAL: Exercise caution traveling to China

The Chinese government on Wednesday announced 10 new COVID-19 response guidelines for easing its stringent pandemic restrictions, sending a clear signal that it is drastically changing its almost three years of enforcing a strict “zero COVID-19” policy.

The relaxed measures were introduced days after protests broke out in major cities and campuses across China against “zero COVID-19” rules — repeated lockdowns, mass testing and forced quarantine — with protesters urging the government to lift its strict control measures, while also displaying dissent against censorship.

Some of the biggest changes include allowing home quarantine for infected people with mild or no symptoms, limiting lockdowns to “high-risk areas” for shorter periods, a strict ban on blocking fire exits and doors, scrapping the requirement to show a negative test result or health code for many venues and domestic travel, and a government vow to accelerate vaccination among the elderly.

Chinese officials and state-controlled media have dramatically shifted their tone, emphasizing that the Omicron subvariant of SARS-CoV-2 is weaker than previous strains and that most cases are either asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. They said that the policy adjustments are “science-based,” and blamed excessive control measures on local officials.

“The country is facing a new situation and new tasks in epidemic prevention and control as the pathogenicity of the Omicron virus weakens, more people are vaccinated and experience in containing the virus has been accumulated,” Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan (孫春蘭) said last week.

Over the past few days, Chinese media have repeatedly broadcast interviews or cited specialists saying that Omicron “is not scary,” as the vast majority of infected people can fully recover, it has a lower risk of causing severe illness and the fatality rate is much lower than that of previous variants.

However, public health experts in other countries have expressed concerns that the Chinese government has not done enough to prepare for a large-scale outbreak, with an expected surge in severe cases and deaths, while many Chinese seem to be confused and uncertain about what lies ahead — millions of lives could be at stake.

Although uncertainty persists around China’s low vaccine uptake among the elderly, insufficient intensive care units, uneven distribution of healthcare resources and low virus exposure, many experts are watching carefully, but do not seem worried about the direct effect a surge in cases in China could have on other countries, as travel has been curbed due to China’s tight border controls.

However, with more than 150,000 Taiwanese registered as living in China last year, and many businesspeople and students traveling between Taiwan and China, Beijing’s sudden COVID-19 policy changes have left Taiwanese asking if it could bring a new wave of infections to the nation.

The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) and several health experts said that Taiwan has experienced two waves of Omicron infections this year, with more than 8.3 million people having been infected and a high two-dose vaccination rate of 88.6 percent, with booster coverage of 74.4 percent, so Taiwanese have some protection against the virus.

However, the CECC warned that as most countries experienced overwhelmed healthcare systems when faced with large outbreaks, people intending to travel to China should be cautious, and be aware that medical and other essential services could be disrupted. A surge in cases could crowd out non-COVID-19 healthcare services, so vulnerable or unvaccinated people are advised to reconsider travel plans to China, and to use healthcare services in Taiwan.

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