China embraces fresh approach

Workers install decorative lights for a key movie and television production base being built in Chongqing after construction resumed, December, 2022. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

More than 12,500 sightseers swarmed to Juzizhou Island, Hunan province, on a recent weekend: five times the number just a month ago. Rural fairs made a comeback in Gansu province after being canceled for much of the year, providing a boon for farmers shopping for gifts and snacks for the upcoming Spring Festival season. Masked youngsters lined up in Shanghai for blockbuster movies, with no worries over the expiration date of their nucleic acid tests.

In fact, the long-lost hustle and bustle have trickled back to some parts of the country ahead of the celebrations for Chinese New Year.

The past 50 days saw central authorities adjusting the nation's COVID-19 strategies as the Omicron subvariants, which fueled incessant outbreaks nationwide and once resulted in many residential areas being sealed off, have become super contagious, yet far less lethal than their predecessors.

To optimize control measures, health authorities stopped tracing COVID-19 cases and their close contacts, and allowed people to choose if they wished to isolate at home or in government-funded facilities. Testing requirements were cut for everyday scenarios, such as taking the subway, dining at restaurants and traveling out of town

To optimize control measures, health authorities stopped tracing COVID-19 cases and their close contacts, and allowed people to choose if they wished to isolate at home or in government-funded facilities. Testing requirements were cut for everyday scenarios, such as taking the subway, dining at restaurants and traveling out of town. Fitness clubs, karaoke bars and other entertainment venues were allowed to resume business.

However, for Liu Han, a 21-year-old who had not yet been infected with COVID-19, much was still at stake if he fell ill. The senior at Beijing International Studies University had never been closer to realizing his dream of becoming a simultaneous interpreter.

Liu and his teachers believed that he stood a good chance of passing the annual National Graduate Entrance Exam and being admitted to a top university in Beijing to study Chinese-English-Spanish interpretation.

The written part of the exam took place on Dec 25 and 26, and only those who excelled can earn a spot for a second-round test at their dream schools in March or April.

Infected students on campus mostly displayed mild symptoms, such as a high temperature, cough, fatigue and loss of smell and taste, and they were not barred from sitting the exam as an "infected only" classroom was arranged for them.

But still, Liu said he felt that it was imperative to take extra precautions against the virus until after the exam.

He reduced his visits to the campus shower room to once every two days. He fetched his own food from the canteen, and disinfected himself from head to toe after entering the dorm.

"The exam is just a week away, and all I need is to stay fit," he said in the run-up to the big event, adding that being infected just ahead of the crucial exam would be a psychological disaster.

A courier scans QR codes on parcels before delivering them in Beijing in December, 2022. (ZHU XINGXIN / CHINA DAILY)

Parcel pileup

Delivery drivers have been crisscrossing Beijing's alleys late into the night on electric rickshaws as they race to clear a backlog of parcels in the wake of the "Double 12" e-shopping festival.

The event — which can last for weeks from about Dec 12 — is among the country's most testing moments for the logistics industry as goods worth hundreds of billions of yuan funnel through courier companies to the doorsteps of binge-buying households.

However, recent outbreaks have made this past Double 12 peak season even more trying for couriers.

Early in November, health authorities lifted a restriction on buying fever, cold and anti-inflammatory drugs as part of a broader effort to encourage COVID-19 patients to wait out discomfort at home and avoid busy hospitals.

As a result, online orders for such medications soared, as well as those for antigen test kits, N95 masks and other epidemic-themed products.

On top of that, large numbers of courier workers fell ill and asked for sick leave.

Yao Hongxu, deputy general manager of the Beijing division of SF Express, said that Omicron knocked out half of his 18,000-strong team at the worst time. The number only bounced back recently as many workers recovered and returned to their posts.

To replenish the workforce, parcel companies in Beijing raced to "borrow" delivery workers from regions less affected by the virus. Some shifted employees from non-delivery work to the front line and upgraded cloth masks to N95 to prevent further illness among workers. Drivers were also encouraged to contact clients to see if parcels could be delivered at night.

"I deliver more than 100 parcels a day," said Xu Zhenglong, who was "borrowed" from Anhui province to help ease the parcel pileup in the capital. The father of two had been staying at a budget hotel with other borrowed colleagues.

After days of hard work, the parcel mountain had been reduced to a flat plain, he said.

Chen Shiju, general manager of Xinkaiyuan, a cold-chain logistics company in Zhengzhou, Henan province, had a team of 43 workers, but less than 10 were still working.

Half of those left, including himself, had tested positive for COVID-19 but chose to stay.

"The infections have created a temporary shortage of workers, which has exerted huge pressure on our company," Chen said. "Hopefully, things will be sorted out when the workers who fell sick earliest recover and return to work."

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A worker disinfects aisles and seats at a cinema in Beijing in December, 2022. (FU DING / FOR CHINA DAILY)

No more control tasks

For the last three years, Bian Siqian has been accustomed to being assigned "epidemic prevention tasks" in addition to her duties as a pediatrician at Xi'an Fourth Hospital in Shaanxi province, such as collecting samples at COVID-19 testing booths.

In November, Bian's employer sent her and 53 colleagues — all doctors and nurses — to staff a makeshift isolation facility in an eastern suburb amid an uptick in local cases.

More than 7,000 people had been quarantined there since it opened. "At first, there were too many patients and too few staff members, so lunch seldom arrived on time," Bian said.

Then, after centralized isolation was made voluntary early last month, the number of residents started to fall and finally stabilized at 1,000.

"Those who remain are reluctant to leave because food, drugs and tests are all readily available here," the doctor said.

When positive cases were scarce, authorities had mixed samples of up to 10 people to speed up mass testing and reduce costs. However, the spike in infections meant a greater number of mixed samples returned positive, so single-sample tests were needed to pinpoint the patient. That caused delays in uploading test results.

As a result, Xi'an and many other cities nationwide dropped the test requirement for visiting hospitals — the few remaining places sticking to stringent test demands.

Bian hasn't yet been infected, but she said that half the medical workers she knows have, and those with mild symptoms had remained at work to help deal with a surge of patients at hospitals.

The silver lining? Many of the pandemic control tasks tossed at her will soon be history, though it may take some time.

"In the past year, I have spent little time as a pediatrician because of epidemic control tasks. I have plans for exams in my field of study if more time is available in the near future," she said.

Wang Mengni, a midwife in Xi'an, said there used to be eight doctors in her department, but now only four are left.

"Some doctors are so sick that they had to ask for sick leave, and that means those still at their posts have to work longer hours," Wang said.

READ MORE: Beijing bustles again after optimization of COVID response

Eager to go offline

For the better part of last year, Zhang Hang had given his lectures via a microphone and camera.

Without immediate feedback, as is the case with in-person classes, he felt at a loss to know if his students were keeping up with him.

"Though I don't have to commute to school, I am more prone to be gripped by a sense of total exhaustion after class," said Zhang, a college teacher and freelance interpreter in Beijing. The 29-year-old said the Omicron-fueled outbreaks had disrupted his teaching career.

Students missed on-campus life for the entire spring semester last year, and a spike in cases this winter has toppled his teaching plans.

In November, colleges in many places, including Beijing and Guangzhou, Guangdong province, allowed students to head home more than a month ahead of the winter break to avoid on-campus outbreaks. Students are expected to attend the rest of the classes online and take exams virtually.

There are concerns about cheating. Examinees must turn on their cameras and install special software that can detect if they switch webpage.

"Shifting teaching online is a bumpy adaptation process for all, but even more so for older teachers," Zhang said.

To facilitate the shift, Zhang's school has reimbursed the teachers for the cost of the microphones, cameras, handwriting devices and other gadgets they had to buy. It even rolled out videos featuring popular online lectures in hopes camera-shy colleagues could emulate them.

With the frequent adjustments to COVID rules lately, Zhang was not sure if such skills would be still useful.

"I crave going back to the classroom, offline," he said.

Du Bo, who works for a United States futures company in Beijing, is now expecting to meet his boss, and his boss's bosses in Hong Kong, Singapore and the US, in person.

In the past few years, financial sector workers have become used to doing everything from research to meeting clients over Zoom-powered sessions. They have largely stopped hopping around on business trips among financial hubs such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong province, which were all pounded by frequent outbreaks last year. Also, overseas trips stopped.

"For many of us, working at China-based foreign companies, meeting our foreign bosses in person has been a luxury over the past few years," Du said.

In the early days of the pandemic, China kept domestic cases to near zero and stuck to stringent isolation policies for inbound visitors to prevent the virus from being imported.

First, visitors needed to go through 14 days of centralized quarantine and seven days of home observation, known as "14+7". In June, it was reduced to"7+3" and in November "5+3". On Dec 26, it was announced that no more quarantine will be needed for inbound travelers starting Jan 8.

"When the quarantine-free policy is unveiled, I will travel more often to Hong Kong and Singapore for in-person meetings," he said.