Commenters in China’s tightly controlled online communities are raising an angry howl at what they see as the latest outrage stemming from President Xi Jinping’s draconian zero-COVID policy.
After at least 27 people died when a bus in southwest China’s Guizhou Province crashed while transporting them to a coronavirus quarantine facility, online comments revealed the magnitude of frustration of ordinary citizens enduring a policy that forces them into lengthy lockdowns and daily testing in the effort to contain COVID.
“27 people, who did not die in the coronavirus, but died in the bus accident [on the way to] quarantine? Even if they are positive, the death rate of the virus is extremely low, who made such a tragedy?” “No ordinary people are against epidemic prevention. What the ordinary people oppose is ... harassment of people.” “So many people concentrated in a bus transport for quarantine. If there was a positive case, how likely would all the people in the bus get infected? I don't understand the current policy. ” “We are all on the bus leading to death."
Censors quickly scrubbed the comments saved by FreeWeibo, a website that tracks comments blocked on China’s Twitter-like platform, Weibo.
According to Lin Gang, Guiyang’s deputy mayor, the bus was carrying 47 people who were under “medical observation” from Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province, to a remote county, Libo, when it overturned on a highway around 170 kilometers from its destination about 2:40 a.m. Sunday.
In addition to the deaths, 20 people were taken to the hospital. As of Wednesday, there was no word on their condition.
It remains unclear why people were being bused to quarantine centers in the middle of night, which violates China’s prohibition on the operation of long-distance commercial buses between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. The cause of the crash remains under investigation.
Although the city of Guiyang and Guizhou province have experienced a recent increase in COVID cases, Guiyang officials announced Sept. 16 that the city would achieve “societal zero-COVID” by Sept. 19, according to a report by Caixin, a Chinese business news outlet.
On Sept. 17, Guizhou authorities said on their official WeChat account that they were sending people who had tested positive elsewhere for quarantine because of limited resources in Guiyang, according to the official news site China Daily. At the time, 7,396 people had been transferred from the city, and 2,900 people were scheduled for transfer.
After the bus crash on Sept. 18, one of the passengers said officials identified all residents of her building for quarantine even though there were no reported cases, reported Caixin.
Unverified photos of the bus began circulating on Chinese social media showing the driver wearing a full hazmat suit with only his eyes uncovered. The photos generated a new round of anger and criticism of the zero-COVID policy.
“When will it stop?” was a slogan repeated on Weibo.
China continues to assume some of the strictest COVID-19 measures in the world, attempting to record zero cases by isolating those with confirmed infections and quarantining anyone who may have been exposed. China says the policy is necessary to keep its health system from being overwhelmed.
However, restrictions across the country have weighed heavily on the country’s economy and even led to food and medical shortages in Shanghai and other areas.
Response to the bus crash soared to be Weibo’s top trending topic Sunday afternoon, until it disappeared from the top 50 slots. Elsewhere online, authorities removed widely shared angry blog posts on the crash.
Municipal instructions on how to ride a bus safely, posted to Weibo by Guizhou police and fire departments, only drew more sharp criticism.
“[This is a] classic blurring of focus and shifting of responsibility,” said one comment retrieved from FreeWeibo by VOA Mandarin.
“Just don’t drive me around for quarantine,” said another.
A day after the crash, Guizhou Province officials announced on WeChat that an investigation is ongoing and three local officials had been suspended.
Guizhou recorded 188 new confirmed cases Tuesday, accounting for about 25% of all new cases in China, according to the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China. The province has been on high alert since the end of August when one new case was reported.
But since the beginning of the pandemic, official data show only two people have died of COVID in Guizhou, a province of 38 million people.
Worldwide, as of Sept. 21, there have been more than 6.5 million deaths attributed to COVID-19, with 15,149 of them in China and just over 1 million in the U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 tracker.
Across China, local officials are under intense pressure to contain any outbreaks ahead of the Communist Party’s congress next month, when President Xi is poised to secure his third term as China’s top leader.
Nine local officials in Guiyang were suspended earlier this month for failing to implement COVID policies properly.
“At this time, to strengthen the lockdown with the zero-COVID policy is to ensure stability and to ensure that there is no social unrest,” Kuan-Ting Chen, chief executive officer of Taiwan Nextgen Foundation, told VOA Mandarin. “So, in the future, at least until Party Congress begins, I think it will become more and more strict.”
Some information in this report came from Reuters.