The sprawling Chinese metropolis of Chongqing announced on Sunday that public sector workers who have tested positive for Covid-19 can go to work “as usual”, a notable turnaround for a city that was in a mass lockdown just weeks ago .
The move comes as China continues to rapidly unwind its once-tight zero-Covid policy, with local governments across the country relaxing costly rules on testing, quarantine and other pandemic measures amid a widespread economic downturn.
“Asymptomatic and mildly ill employees of the (Communist Party) and government organizations at all levels, enterprises and institutions can go to work normally after taking protective measures necessary for their health status and work requirements,” the Chongqing Pandemic Operations Office said in a statement published on the municipal government’s website.
It added that government agencies would no longer screen staff – including police, public school teachers and other workers – for daily negative Covid tests. Instead, authorities will shift the focus of work from preventing infection to protecting health and preventing serious diseases, it said.
The abrupt reversal is particularly impressive in Chongqing, one of China’s largest cities with a population of 32 million and an annual GDP of $400 billion.
Jerry Cheng, who works at a government construction company in the city and is currently Covid positive, expressed concern about the announcement.
“I won’t go unless they call my name,” he told CNN. “It’s definitely not a good thing when a group of infected people work together,” he said, adding the new policy is to protect the local economy.
Cheng’s concern was echoed on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, Monday, as Chongqing residents reacted to the announcement.
“Why do you have to go and infect healthy people?” Read a top comment. Another user wrote: “This goes from one extreme to the other.”
Several other places in China, including the eastern city of Wuhu and Zhejiang province, also announced similar measures this week.
Chongqing, a hub for industry and agriculture, became a Covid hotspot last month. More than a million residents have been told not to leave the city unless absolutely necessary and multiple rounds of daily mass testing have been carried out.
When China’s Vice Premier Sun Chunlan visited Chongqing on Nov. 22, she urged local authorities to take “swift and decisive action” to contain the outbreak by identifying positive cases and their close contacts, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper.
But by then, some residents lost patience. Three years of zero Covid had taken its toll on the economy and disrupted people’s daily lives and livelihoods.
Photos from Chongqing had gone viral online in August, showing huge crowds standing under the sun for hours during a record heatwave while awaiting mandatory Covid tests. In the background, plumes of smoke from forest fires rose over the skyline.
Amid mounting frustration, a Chongqing resident delivered a scathing speech in late November, criticizing the lockdown of his condominium complex and shouting to a cheering crowd, “Without freedom, I’d rather die!”
Just days later, nationwide protests against the zero-Covid policy – and in some cases against the central leadership itself – erupted, marking the biggest challenge to the Communist Party and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in decades.
The country’s rapid withdrawal of Covid restrictions came soon after. And while relaxing rules, such as allowing Covid patients to isolate at home rather than being taken to a government quarantine center, will come as a long-awaited relief for many, skyrocketing cases have also sparked widespread concern in a population that is largely has been shielded from the virus since 2020.
The country’s Covid death toll could reach nearly one million as it reopens, according to CNN calculations based on a study by Hong Kong researchers published last week.