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How China's COVID policy rollbacks will affect the country and the world

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

China is changing its approach to COVID-19.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The country seems to be abandoning a policy of zero COVID infections. That policy led to widespread travel restrictions and lockdowns. Now economic stagnation and all those public protests are forcing leaders to say they will change course. China's new policy could mean additional freedoms.

INSKEEP: David Rennie is the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist. David, welcome back.

DAVID RENNIE: Hello.

INSKEEP: What's really changing here?

RENNIE: Well, you're right to mention the economic pain of this policy and the public anger which we've seen take the shape of not just protests, but also just generally an entire population that's fed up. But the final piece of the puzzle is the virus has mutated to become so contagious. That omicron variant that has been rampaging around the world all year is just so easy to catch that China's incredibly ambitious zero-COVID policy is not keeping up. And so the brutal truth is the Communist Party has spent nearly three years saying it's declared an all-out people's war on the virus, and the virus is winning.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is a powerful insight I think you're giving us, David. I had thought that this was a response to the declining economy in China or a response to public protest. And you're saying that China is being forced to abandon zero-COVID because it just isn't working. The virus is spreading too much anyway.

RENNIE: It's all linked. Why are people so angry? Why are people so fed up after nearly three years of tolerating the kind of controls I think Americans or Brits would never tolerate? It's because it's not working. They can see that the case numbers have been soaring because it's just so easy to catch omicron. And they're also becoming aware that the outside world seems to be living with this virus. And, you know, they can see crowds at the World Cup not wearing masks. They're realizing that China isn't like anywhere else, and it's bankrupting businesses. It's killing the kind of - you know, any number of economic sectors. And so that combination of pain that isn't working - the balance seems to have just shifted. And now at incredible speed, this incredibly strict system is falling apart in a very chaotic, frankly unplanned way.

INSKEEP: Although just months ago, Chinese officials were saying this policy is saving millions of lives. Think about how many people are in China. It's saving millions of lives. What happens now as restrictions are lifted?

RENNIE: I mean, they've been saying that till almost a week ago. It was all about how China had saved lives and countries like America had so many dead. So now we're seeing the central government saying things like, you know, mass testing is no longer needed. So basically you're not going to find the cases that you were previously always quarantining. So that part of the system is falling apart. We can expect other cities, perhaps poorer cities with weak hospitals to resist and to say, actually, we don't have so many cases. We're terrified that this is going to overwhelm our health system.

I think we could see a return to what we've seen before during this pandemic of roadblocks, you know, provincial borders, suddenly police not letting people across. Beijing, where I am, is kind of chaos. They're saying that we don't need health codes to go into shops, shopping malls, but you do to go to schools or to hospitals. But there's nowhere to get a COVID test anymore because they've been hauling away all the testing booths on the back of trucks. And so people don't know how to get the test to get the kids to school.

INSKEEP: When you say health codes, this is something on your phone that shows that you're vaccinated or that you've been tested or whatever, and now you're saying it's hard to know if you need that and hard to get verified anyway.

RENNIE: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Are travel restrictions are going to be lifted, in just a few seconds? Is it going to be easier to get in and out of China?

RENNIE: In and out is a mystery. Between provinces seems to be getting easier. But the fear is this is the winter. They haven't vaccinated enough people. And if the case numbers really soar, they could be forced to start locking down again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.