HONG KONG (AP) — China on Sunday reported two additional deaths from COVID-19 as some cities move cautiously to ease anti-pandemic restrictions amid increasingly vocal public frustration over the measures.
The National Health Commission said one death was reported each in the provinces of Shandong and Sichuan. No information was given about the ages of the victims or whether they had been fully vaccinated.
China, where the virus first was detected in late 2019 in the central city of Wuhan, is the last major country trying to stop transmission completely through quarantines, lockdowns and mass testing. Concerns over vaccination rates are believed to figure prominently in the ruling Communist Party's determination to stick to its hard-line strategy.
While nine in 10 Chinese have been vaccinated, only 66 per cent of people over 80 have gotten one shot, while 40 per cent have received a booster, according to the commission. It said 86 per cent of people over 60 are vaccinated.
Given those figures and the fact that relatively few Chinese have been built up antibodies by being exposed to the virus, some fear millions could die if restrictions were lifted entirely.
Yet, an outpouring of public anger appears to have prompted authorities to lift some of the more onerous restrictions, even as they say the "zero-COVID" strategy — which aims to isolate every infected person — is still in place.
Beijing and some other Chinese cities have announced that riders can board buses and subways without a virus test for the first time in months.
The slight relaxation of testing requirements comes even as daily virus infections reach near-record highs, and follows weekend protests across the country by residents frustrated by the rigid enforcement of anti-virus restrictions that are now entering their fourth year, even as the rest of the world has opened up.
The southern technological manufacturing centre of Shenzhen said Saturday that commuters no longer need to show a negative COVID-19 test result to use public transport or when entering pharmacies, parks and tourist attractions.
Meanwhile, the capital Beijing said last Friday that negative test results are also no longer required for public transport from Monday. However, a negative result obtained within the past 48 hours is still required to enter venues like shopping malls, which have gradually reopened with many restaurants and eateries providing take-out services.
The requirement has led to complaints from some Beijing residents that even though the city has shut many testing stations, most public venues still require COVID-19 tests.
On Sunday, China announced another 35,775 cases from the past 24 hours, 31,607 of which were asymptomatic, bringing its total to 336,165 with 5,235 deaths.
While many have questioned the accuracy of the Chinese figures, they remain relatively low compared to the United States and other nations which are now relaxing controls and trying to live with the virus that has killed at least 6.6 million people worldwide and sickened almost 650 million.
On Saturday, Beijing authorities said that because the current round of COVID-19 was spreading fast, it is necessary to "unswervingly continue to implement normalised social prevention and control measures".
As the rest of the world has learned to live with the virus, China remains the only major nation still sticking to a "zero-COVID" strategy. The policy, which has been in place since the pandemic started, led to snap lockdowns and mass testing across the country.
China still imposes mandatory quarantine for incoming travellers even as its infection numbers are low compared to its 1.4 billion population.