A piecemeal easing of the world's strictest COVID-19 restrictions sowed confusion across China on Monday, prompting hopes for greater clarity as officials shift their tone on the dangers posed by the coronavirus in the wake of unprecedented protests last month.
Three years into the pandemic, China's zero-tolerance policies, which include closing its borders and instituting suffocating lockdowns, stand in stark contrast to the rest of the world, which has largely opened up to coexist with the virus.
The strict approach has harmed the world's second-largest economy, put a mental strain on hundreds of millions, and sparked the largest public display of discontent in mainland China since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012.
Numerous regional authorities have announced some relaxations of lockdowns, quarantine rules, and testing requirements as a result of the protests, even though they have largely dissipated amid a heavy police presence in major cities.
In some regions, daily counts of new COVID infections have also decreased as authorities scale back testing.
Commentator Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the state-controlled tabloid Global Times, said on the Twitter-like microblog Weibo on Sunday that "information at this stage will be somewhat chaotic," highlighting the possibility that fewer tests could skew infection figures.
People familiar with the matter told Reuters last week that China will soon announce a nationwide easing of testing requirements as well as allowing positive cases and close contacts to isolate at home under certain conditions.
Until then, however, a lack of clarity has caused some to fear being on the wrong side of rapidly changing rules.
Yin, a resident of a small city near Beijing, the capital, reported that her in-laws had developed a fever and that she had a sore throat, but that they refused to be tested.
She added that they feared being placed in government quarantine facilities, which were described by many as poorly constructed and unhygienic.
She told Reuters under the condition of anonymity, "All we want is to recuperate at home, by ourselves."
In addition to the easing of local restrictions, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees COVID efforts, stated last week that the virus's ability to cause disease was diminishing.
This change in messaging is consistent with the position held by numerous health authorities around the globe for over a year.
As the virus weakens, conditions are improving for China to scale back its management of COVID-19 as a serious contagious disease, state media outlet Yicai reported late on Sunday, introducing the concept.
China has classified COVID-19 as a Category B infectious disease since January 2020 but has managed it under Category A protocols, giving authorities the authority to quarantine patients and their close contacts.
In recent days, major Chinese cities have continued to relax the strictest of these regulations.
Authorities in the southwest Chinese municipality of Chongqing urged local organizations not to conduct excessive testing. They stated, "Do not repeat or increase testing."
The eastern province of Zhejiang announced its intention to end mass testing, while the city of Nanjing eliminated COVID tests for public transportation use.
Beijing has also eliminated testing for public transportation, but many office buildings still require negative tests for entry, leaving employees confused.
Some state media reported that the elimination of the requirement to present negative test results to purchase cold and fever medications in various cities, a measure intended to discourage the use of the drugs to mask symptoms, has led to a surge in sales.
Although the intensity of last week's demonstrations appears to have subsided as many await clarity on the future of COVID management, there are still instances of simmering frustration.
In the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus first appeared in late 2019, people under lockdown at a garment industrial park pushed through barriers on Saturday to escape a COVID lockdown.
Reuters was able to confirm that the event took place in Wuhan.
Twitter videos indicate that on a rainy Sunday, dozens of students gathered at a university in the city to protest its COVID policies.
The images depicted students carrying umbrellas and chanting for information and "transparency" from university officials.