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China eases COVID-19 restrictions in wake of protests

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China announced a nationwide easing of its strict COVID-19 restrictions Wednesday, following widespread protests. Photo by Wu Hao/EPA-EFE
China announced a nationwide easing of its strict COVID-19 restrictions Wednesday, following widespread protests. Photo by Wu Hao/EPA-EFE

Dec. 7 (UPI) -- China announced Wednesday that it would loosen its stringent COVID-19 controls for the first time in three years after widespread protests against the draconian policies broke out across the country and escalated into calls for greater freedom.

Under new 10-point guidelines released by China's National Health Commission, large-scale lockdowns will be curtailed and people with mild or no symptoms will be allowed to isolate at home rather than being forced into government camps.

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Frequent COVID-19 tests and health verification apps will also no longer be necessary to enter most public facilities, apart from locations such as elderly care homes, medical institutions and primary and secondary schools.

The new rules are the most significant changes to Beijing's zero-COVID policies since the beginning of the pandemic some three years ago.

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Public anger had long been simmering over the heavy restrictions, which led to extreme measures such as a two-month citywide lockdown in financial hub Shanghai this year.

Outrage boiled over after a fire in Urumqi, capital of the far western region of Xinjiang, killed 10 people who had been quarantined. The blaze and deaths sparked accusations that the lockdowns, which had been in place in much of Xinjiang for more than three months, hampered rescue efforts.

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Protests broke out across the country late last month, as thousands took to the streets in the greatest show of unrest that China has seen in decades. In some cases, demands for the easing of COVID-19 policies expanded into calls for Chinese President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party to step down.

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Authorities responded by deploying a heavy police presence to tamp down the protests, while cities including Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou began a local easing of COVID-19 rules. Wednesday's announcement marks the first nationwide revision to the guidelines, which have taken a major economic toll on the country.

The new guidelines also call for health officials to accelerate the vaccination of the elderly and for buildings and public facilities to remove safety hazards such as blocked fire exits.

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