China reports 2 new COVID deaths as some restrictions eased

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HONG KONG — China on Sunday reported two more deaths from COVID-19 as some cities move cautiously to ease restrictions aimed at fighting the pandemic after increasingly vocal public frustration.

The National Health Commission said one death each was reported in Shandong and Sichuan provinces. No information was given about the ages of the victims or whether they were fully vaccinated.

China, where the virus was first detected in downtown Wuhan in late 2019, is the latest major country to try to halt transmission entirely through quarantines, lockdowns and mass testing. Concerns about vaccination rates are believed to play a prominent role in the ruling Communist Party’s determination to stick to its tough strategy.

According to the commission, while nine out of ten Chinese have been vaccinated, only 66% of people over 80 have received a vaccination, while 40% have received a booster shot. It was said that 86 percent of those over 60 had been vaccinated.

Given those numbers, and the fact that relatively few Chinese have built up antibodies from exposure to the virus, some fear millions could die if restrictions were lifted entirely.

However, an outburst of public anger appears to have prompted authorities to lift some of the more onerous restrictions, although they say the “zero-COVID” strategy – which aims to isolate anyone infected – is still in effect.

The demonstrations, the largest and most widespread in decades, erupted on November 25 after a fire at an apartment building in the northwest city of Ürümqi killed at least 10 people. That sparked angry questions online about whether locked doors or other antivirus controls blocked firefighters or victims trying to escape. Authorities denied this, but the deaths became a focus of public frustration.

The country saw several days of protests in cities including Shanghai and Beijing, with protesters calling for an easing of COVID-19 curbs. Some called for the resignation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, an extraordinary display of public dissent in a society over which the ruling Communist Party exercises near-total control.

Beijing and some other Chinese cities announced that passengers can board buses and subways without a virus test for the first time in months. The requirement has prompted complaints from some Beijing residents that although the city has closed many testing stations, most public venues still require COVID-19 testing.

On Sunday, China announced another 35,775 cases from the past 24 hours, of which 31,607 were asymptomatic, bringing the total to 336,165 with 5,235 deaths.

Though many have questioned the accuracy of the Chinese figures, they remain relatively low compared to the US and other nations, which are now relaxing controls and trying to live with the virus that has killed and nearly 6.6 million people worldwide made 650 million sick.

China still imposes mandatory quarantine on incoming travelers despite infection numbers being low compared to its population of 1.4 billion.

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