Hu Yuping is afraid.
The 43-year-old in central China’s Hunan Province is a cancer survivor and has just learned that despite the presence of COVID-19 patients in the building, the two-week lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the virus has been lifted.
“Wear your mask and don’t go to crowded places – we can only rely on ourselves now,” Hugh wrote in a group chat with his family on messaging platform WeChat.
After nearly three years of a coronavirus eradication strategy aimed at eliminating the virus wherever it appears with lockdowns, mass testing and centralized quarantines, China is suddenly easing some of its toughest restrictions.
The policy shift that has stunted the growth of the world’s second largest economy and disrupted the lives of millions came soon after the wave of anti-lockdown protests swept the country.
The policy easing has pleased many, particularly those whose economic livelihoods have been hit, but many are worried about what might happen next as health experts predict a spike in coronavirus cases in a country where the vast majority of the population has not been affected. have been exposed to the virus and many seniors have not received a full vaccine.
The strategy to eradicate the emerging corona virus also means that since 2020, the Chinese government has been promoting a narrative about an undoubtedly deadly virus and portraying the rest of the world’s decision to live with it as a dangerous step.
However, it did not take more than a few nights for the government to begin dismantling the anti-epidemic system it had so zealously built.
Within a week, the government dropped PCR test requirements for entry to most public places, dismantled the National COVID-19 Tracking Application — a set of codes for China’s epidemic control measures — and generally relaxed other measures that had restricted it. Everyday life for everyone.
“leave it in the open”
The sudden change left many confused and even – for people like Huo – frightened.
People with underlying diseases or weakened immune systems are known to be more susceptible to COVID-19, and he has been treated for ovarian cancer.
She recently passed the five-year mark since the last cancer cells were detected in her body, a clinical sign that the disease may have been suppressed, but says she is “very nervous” about the sudden change in COVID-19 policies. 19 and cancels all non-essential travel outside his home so as not to “run the risk of infection.”
“Doctors say they are worried about the side effects the vaccines might have on me,” Hu told Al Jazeera.
But now we are left out in the cold, without vaccines and without protection from the state. »
Al Jazeera spoke to five immunocompromised people who had not been vaccinated. They all told stories of the government’s slowness and reluctance to vaccinate them due to concerns about side effects.
Patients with underlying diseases now fear that there will not be enough time to get vaccinated before the virus hits their city or building.
“The vaccine has never been rushed before, but now even if we want to get the vaccine, doctors are hesitant because there are no guidelines from above,” said Ding Siyang, a dialysis patient in Kunming, in the southwest of the city. China. He said. “We are all a little afraid.
The country’s large elderly population is also feared. Despite the government’s efforts to speed up vaccinations for the elderly after easing the policy, only 60% of people over the age of 80 have been boosted according to the National Health Commission. A study conducted in Hong Kong shows that elderly people vaccinated with COVID-19 vaccines made in China are not adequately protected against serious diseases until after taking a booster dose.
Given the relatively low vaccination rate among those at risk, experts expected a sharp rise in cases in China’s harsh winter that could overwhelm limited medical resources in the world’s most populous country.
In the face of the inevitable wave of COVID-19, it is not only vulnerable people who fear.
After the relentless messaging of the past three years, there is also unease among young and healthy people — people who, according to conventional wisdom, should be better able to cope with disease.
Experts have been studying the impact of extended lockdowns on people’s mental health since COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan three years ago and the city of 8.5 million people went into quarantine.
The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, noted in China’s first national survey of mental disorders in the 2020 COVID-19 epidemic that “35% of respondents experienced distress, including anxiety and depression.”
“School closures have been associated with undesirable mental symptoms and behaviors in children and adolescents,” she added, noting that the relief when the Wuhan lockdown was finally lifted eased widespread anxiety regarding adjusting to routine life and fear of virus transmission. Recovery “.
Since then, sporadic and extended lockdowns in China have left many people “tired and depressed,” according to Xiao Lu, a Shanghai-based psychotherapist.
“Separation from friends and family due to fear of this dreaded disease is a major trigger for many people,” she said.
Lu Xueqin, 35, from the central Chinese city of Changsha has been vaccinated and boosted with vaccines made locally in China, but finds her mind drifting back to the early days of the pandemic when medical resources were stretched to the limit.
“I really don’t want us to go back to that time,” Lu said.
Since Wuhan in early 2020, vaccines have been developed and the virus itself has evolved. The difference between past and present is clear: the extra protection offered by a wider range of vaccines and better treatments meant that the wave of Omicron variants was more widespread but less severe.
However, in China, Beijing’s frightening portrayal of the virus from Wuhan has made it difficult for people to confront the future of living with COVID-19.
“Anxiety will inevitably spread to many people who previously thought that contracting coronavirus was a death sentence,” Xiao Lu told Al Jazeera.
Although leading experts have taken to national television to inform the public that the new variant is not as deadly as the kind that swept through Wuhan at the start of the pandemic, fear is rife.
Few fear that unless the government tells the public more aggressively about the changing nature of the infection, many will suffer from anxiety and even depression.
It has been scientifically studied that uncertainty increases anxiety in sensitive people [anxiety]She added that any change in policy without proper communication with the public would only exacerbate matters.
Such fear and uncertainty could have lasting effects as cases rise amid looser controls.
“Currently, the epidemic in China is spreading rapidly, and under these circumstances, no matter how strong prevention and control is, it will be difficult to completely cut off the chain of transmission,” said Zhong Nanshan, senior advisor to the government. Official media on Sunday.
In a survey conducted by consultant Oliver Wyman earlier this month, among 4,000 consumers surveyed, fear of contracting COVID-19 was the top concern among those who said they would not travel.
“You must be joking,” Lu replied when asked if she planned to travel from her home in Changsha as the rules have been relaxed. “I can hardly muster up enough courage to leave my house now.”