China's strict "zero-COVID" policy to stem coronavirus infections through lockdowns has effectively collapsed, with the epidemic apparently raging in major cities after the government significantly eased antivirus steps last week amid public frustration.

As frequent testing is no longer required, official infection numbers have been on the decline but long queues have continued to be formed at hospitals in Beijing treating patients with a high fever.

Citizens wearing face shields to protect against COVID-19 walk in Beijing on Dec. 12, 2022. (Kyodo)

After abandoning its policy of imposing lockdowns in areas where outbreaks occur and sending those who tested positive to designated quarantine facilities, the government has encouraged people to recuperate at home if their infection has been detected through an antigen test kit.

Positive cases from home testing are no longer required to be reported to authorities and the government has stressed self-help efforts in dealing with the virus spread, telling people to "take primary responsibility for your own health."

China said Monday it confirmed about 8,500 new infections the previous day, down sharply from record-high levels of nearly 40,000 daily cases in late November. In Beijing, official counts of daily new infections had similarly fallen to about 1,100 as of Sunday from some 5,000 in late last month.

But it is believed these official figures do not reflect reality, with requests for ambulances having surged six-fold over the past several days in the capital, according to local media, triggering concerns over strains on the health care system.

The government also said Monday it will abolish the following day a smartphone app showing users' travel records that is available nationwide. The app was introduced in the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and was a major tool for restricting people's movement.

The stringent COVID restrictions were drastically eased last Wednesday after rare protests against the draconian policy erupted across China in late November. These included calls for President Xi Jinping to step down.

The Xi leadership has not officially ditched its signature zero-COVID policy and called for "optimized" antivirus measures, stressing that the virulence of the Omicron variant is weakening.

The People's Daily, the flagship newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, said Monday the antivirus steps were eased "at the best timing" and tried to justify the party's policy, saying it is "correct and scientific."

Some citizens deplored the government's lack of preparedness in boosting health care system for the wide spread of the infectious disease. In China, only domestically developed vaccines are available and those tailored for the Omicron variants, such as those produced by Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., have not been approved.

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