China's 'zero-Covid' policy caused much frustration and anger among residents who have had to endure quarantines against their will. Now the country is trying something new: disabling the app that tracks individuals' movements.

A woman wearing a face mask adjusts her scarf on a street as the capital city is hit by a sandstorm in Beijing, Dec. 12, 2022.
A woman wearing a face mask adjusts her scarf on a street as the capital city is hit by a sandstorm in Beijing, Dec. 12, 2022. (Andy Wong / AP)

A smartphone travel tracing app will be “switched off” as China begins easing out of its strict “zero-Covid” policies that had caused misery to millions of people and sparked unrest in the country.

At midnight on Monday, the smartphone app will cease to function, meaning residents’ travels will not be traced and recorded, potentially reducing the likelihood they will be forced into quarantine for visiting pandemic hot spots. 

China’s ruling Communist Party allows no independent parties to conduct verification, and such apps have been used in past to suppress travel and free speech.

It’s part of a package of apps that includes the health code, which has yet to be disabled.

The move follows the government’s snap announcement last week that it was ending many of the most draconian measures. 

That follows three years of lockdowns, travel restrictions and quarantines on those moving between provinces and cities, mandated testing, and requirements that a clean bill of health is shown to access public areas.

READ MORE: China begins implementing relaxed version of anti-Covid rules

Protests over restrictions

Last month in Beijing and several other cities, protests over the restrictions grew into calls for leader Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party to step down, in a level of public political expression not seen in decades.

While met with relief, the relaxation has also sparked concerns about a new wave of infections potentially overwhelming healthcare resources in some areas.

Xi’s government is still officially committed to stopping virus transmission, the last major country to try. But the latest moves suggest the party will tolerate more cases without quarantines or shutting down travel or businesses as it winds down its “zero-Covid” strategy.

At the same time, facing a surge in Covid-19 cases, China is setting up more intensive care facilities and trying to strengthen hospitals’ ability to deal with severe cases.

However, the government reversed course by allowing those with mild symptoms to recuperate at home rather than being sent to field hospitals that have become notorious for overcrowding and poor hygiene.

Reports on the Chinese internet, which the government tightly controls, sought to reassure a nervous public, stating that restrictions would continue to be dropped and travel, indoor dining and other economic activity would soon be returning to pre-pandemic conditions.

READ MORE: China eases nationwide Covid restrictions after protests

'Zero-Covid' policy

China’s leaders had long praised “zero-Covid” for keeping the numbers of cases and deaths much lower than in other nations. Still, health officials are now saying the most prevalent omicron variety poses much less of a risk.

On Monday, China announced around 8,500 new cases, bringing the nation’s total to 365,312 — more than double the level since October 1 — with 5,235 deaths. That compares to 1.1 million Covid-19 deaths in the United States.

Protests erupted on November 25 after at least 10 people died in a fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi. 

Many believed Covid-19 restrictions may have impeded rescue efforts.

Authorities denied the claims spread online, but demonstrators voiced longstanding frustration in cities such as Shanghai that have endured severe lockdowns.

The party responded with a massive show of force and an unknown number of people were arrested at the protests or in the days following.

READ MORE: China loosens more Covid curbs as easing gathers pace

Source: TRTWorld and agencies