Expats living in China say they have been startled by the speed with which pandemic restrictions have been lifted and that some remaining rules are not being enforced despite cases surging.
Britons described a mix of relief that restrictions had been lifted and worries about the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, just as the UK finally tightened restrictions on arrivals from the country on Friday.
William, a Shanghai-based English teacher who asked to be referred to only by his first name, managed to fly into China despite having tested positive for coronavirus just days before while spending Christmas in the UK.
While he had to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival, his stay didn’t last long.
“I was in quarantine today but me and a group of other quarantiners decided we wanted to leave,” he told The Independent.
“So, it was me as a foreigner and six Chinese women who’d all decided it was a bit illogical to have to quarantine because nobody really cares about the restrictions anymore,” he continued.
“We all got our suitcases and went downstairs and walked out basically. There wasn’t much opposition from the security or the management of the hotel.”
Now back in his apartment he says his neighbours have taken an “extremely relaxed” view of things.
A sensor has been installed on his door to alert people if he goes out. However, William said the people who installed it had no problem when he told them he had to leave at 10pm to pick up his wife from work.
“They were like ‘Oh it’s just there because we need to take a picture of it to show the government’.”
Others also report that pandemic restrictions, strictly enforced over the past three years, have melted away with surprising speed despite the surge in coronavirus cases.
One British businessman who has lived in Beijing for over a decade said: “It’s strange at the moment because everyone’s got Covid in Beijing in the last two or three weeks. I only know one person who hasn’t had it and I know a lot of people.”
Despite coming down with the virus himself almost immediately after restrictions were relaxed, he had just returned to Beijing after taking a skiing holiday in China.
“The first day we go there [the ski resort] on Monday, most people were still wearing masks,” he said. “By the time we left today [Friday] pretty much no one apart from the restaurant staff were wearing masks.”
He added that he thought people were mainly relieved restrictions had ended.
“The protests that happened here were really about this feeling of complete helplessness,” he said. “At that point it really did feel like this could go on until 2027. The was no end in sight.”
However, China also appears to be paying a high price for relaxing restrictions without sufficient preparation or high enough vaccination levels. Pictures circulating online show hospitals so crowded that patients are lying in the hallways and some commentators warn of health systems nearing collapse.
Some estimate that China is seeing up to 9,000 deaths a day due to Covid but a lack of reliable data makes it hard to get an accurate picture.
“When the official death toll was four I knew two people whose relatives had died,” said the Beijing-based businessman. “Unless I happen to know 50 per cent of the deaths in China there might be some misreporting happening,”
He also described how some Chinese colleagues were going online to non-official versions of Pavloxid, a drug used to treat coronavirus.
For him, the big question is what’s happening outside of the big cities where the population is often older.
“We go up to the Great Wall a lot in the summer. There are some villages up there that we visit a lot. In many of these villages, everyone is 70 or older. What’s going to happen when the virus rips through a village of three hundred 75-year-olds?”