Chinese universities criticised over continuing Covid controls

Academic emphasises need for transparency as institutions forced into U-turns on restrictions

二月 8, 2023
City Nantong in Jiangsu province in China, March 31 2022 government doing mass Covid-19 testing for Omicron. People line up for the registration and test
Source: iStock

Chinese universities have come in for criticism for imposing coronavirus-related restrictions on returning students even though the country has abandoned its zero-Covid strategy.

Last month, the country’s National Health Commission issued guidelines asking universities to stop requiring students to show negative Covid test results when they “enter or leave the gate and any public areas of a campus”. The Ministry of Education has also published a notice instructing institutions to be more flexible in handling future outbreaks and not just lock down the campus.

But North China Electric Power University, an institution based in Beijing, was criticised online after a student claimed that they were being required to present a Covid test result before returning to campus for the new term, even if they were showing no symptoms. The university later told local media that it had noted the comments and would discuss further returning plans with local authorities.

Social media posts indicate that institutions in Tianjin, Anhui and Hebei provinces have told students who have returned to university to remain on campus and not leave “unless it is necessary”, a practice that institutions had commonly employed before and is now criticised as “unreasonable when the whole country is reopening”.

“The notice we received says we need to get digital permission from the counsellor if we go out and do not plan to return to the campus on the same day. If we leave the city, paper permission is needed,” one Anhui student told Times Higher Education, asking not to be named.

Guangzhou College of Applied Science and Technology was forced to reverse its decision to postpone the return date for two weeks after its announcement was met with indignation. The institution in Guangdong province had initially planned to provide classes in online format.

The heated debates about lingering restrictions come after protests on dozens of campuses in late 2022 that forced the abandonment of harsh pandemic control measures.

Wendy Li, an associate professor of psychology at Australia’s James Cook University, said a key priority for Chinese institutions now was to provide “transparency” about Covid-related measures.

“Transparency on the pandemic situation and related public health policies will help reduce anxiety caused by uncertainty,” she said.

Previous studies suggest that campus lockdowns had a negative impact on students’ mental health, triggering complaints by students and tensions in campuses across the country.

Dr Li and her colleagues are finalising a longitudinal study that followed a group of students for 28 months.

“We found that the students’ mental health was associated with the lockdown methods and their fear of infection,” she said. “Better preparation for dealing with issues caused by the policy change will be helpful.”



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