BEIJING: Once dominated by doom and gloom coverage of the dangers of the virus and scenes of pandemic chaos abroad, China’s tightly controlled media has dramatically shifted tone as the country tentatively moves away from zero-COVID.
Long anchored to a hardline strategy of mass lockdowns, forced quarantine in centralised facilities and mass testing for millions, Beijing is dialling down curbs in the wake of nationwide protests calling for an end to lockdowns and greater political freedoms.
That policy shift has been accompanied by rapid changes in pandemic messaging in both state media and official statements – which now downplay the risk from the virus and blame local officials for over-zealous implementation of COVID-19 lockdowns.
The prevalent Omicron strain is “not at all like last year’s Delta variant”, Guangzhou-based medicine professor Chong Yutian said in an article published by the Communist Party-run China Youth Daily.
“After infection with the Omicron variant, the vast majority will have no or light symptoms, and very few will go on to have severe symptoms, this is already widely known,” he assured readers.
“Don’t be overly terrified, but also take some precautions” against the virus, a story in the Beijing Youth Daily quoted recovered COVID-19 patients telling readers.
And an analysis on Friday (Dec 2) by state-run newspaper People’s Daily quoted health experts supporting local government moves to allow patients to quarantine at home, which would be a marked departure from current rules.
“This is a kind of official propaganda preparing the people for more relaxation and giving the government some possibility to step down (from zero-COVID),” Hong Kong-based Chinese politics expert Willy Lam told AFP.
“THERE WILL BE PUNISHMENT”
Experts say Beijing is laying the groundwork for a loosening of COVID-19 rules – as well as putting in place convenient scapegoats to blame for the restrictions going too far.
The country’s top virus response body has already pointed to over-zealous local officials who had gone overboard with their virus measures, urging in a Q&A with the People’s Daily on Saturday that these people be “strictly held accountable”.
“There will be punishment of a lot of local officials,” Lam told AFP.
In one case announced by authorities on Saturday, a sub-district security official in Hunan province was expelled from the Communist Party and removed from his post for assaulting a local resident during a lockdown-related dispute.
COVID-19 testing companies are also emerging as a scapegoat, with state media in recent days publishing exposes of alleged violations by testing organisations.