In Shijiazhuang, lines for a COVID testing clinic meandered down the street and around the corner.
Hundreds of people waited, many for more than an hour.
The reason for the excessively long waits may well seem unexpected, it is not because the test requirement has increased, in fact, it is the exact opposite.
Although COVID-19 spiraling infections in this city, testing is actually shrinking.
There is a sense that what is happening in Shijiazhuang is something of a test case at a time when China is at a critical crossroads.
The country has rigorously adhered to its zero COVID commitment for nearly three years. It has established a highly sophisticated network of tests and digitized health codes, and has regularly locked down cities of millions of people for just a handful of positive cases.
The strategy has meant that the number of reported COVID cases in the country remains low by world standards, but some worry that the harsh restrictions are holding back the economy and throwing China out of sync with the rest of the world.
And something strange is happening right now. Despite cases rising by the day and cities like Beijing posting record numbers, the expected lockdowns don’t always happen.
People in Shijiazhuang are now being told that those who are not vulnerable will not need to show negative test results to gain access to some places. There are also far fewer test booths.
Officials say this does not constitute an easing of restrictions, just “optimization.” They’d say they’re just one of the first places to implement a new government directive that restrictions need to be more targeted and move away from a “one size fits all” approach.
Fear of the hard-to-shake virus
The news was met with a mixed response from the public. On Chinese social media, many celebrated, but others are clearly nervous.
Years of public messages that the virus is to be feared will be hard to shake. It was the key reason why the COVID lines were so long: There are fewer booths, but people still want to get tested.
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Ultimately, it’s hard to see how less testing won’t mean more cases, and therefore very hard to see how it squares up with China’s rigorous “zero COVID response.”
From this point, there are only two real options for the government of President Xi; drastic overcorrection in the form of severe draconian lockdowns, or the spread of the virus throughout the community.
Which one you opt for will be instrumental in indicating how long-term the commitment to zero COVID might be.