China’s quarantine bus crash sparks fury over ‘zero covid’ policy

China’s quarantine bus crash sparks fury over ‘zero covid’ policy

China’s quarantine bus crash sparks fury over ‘zero covid’ policy

The bus left the Chinese city of Guiyang just after midnight, carrying 45 residents who had been sent out for preventive quarantine because they were close contacts with coronavirus patients. At 02.40, 27 were dead after the bus rolled into a ditch.

The accident early Sunday in southern Guizhou province sparked outrage and grief in China, with many calling it a tragic example of the strain of the nation’s tough pandemic controls. Posts about the accident on the social media platform Weibo had amassed more than 1 billion views by midday on Monday.

For many, the bus crash was not just a traffic accident: It reflected the major security risks that local officials across China have repeatedly accepted in pursuit of the “zero covid” policy championed by President Xi Jinping. Quarantine transports late at night have been routine, enabling officials to provide a quick response despite the risks from reduced visibility and drivers with gray eyes.

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Since the pandemic began, videos have circulated of local authorities welding apartment doors to ensure lockdown compliance, despite the danger to residents in the event of a fire. In Shanghai this year, several residents died after being banned from leaving lockdown to go to hospital. In Chengdu this month, building managers told some residents to stay indoors during an earthquake to comply with pandemic controls.

For a time, the Chinese public largely followed the draconian measures. But recently, many have begun to question the cost of an approach that bears some of the hallmarks of the disastrous campaigns of the past.

The flipping public opinion is a challenge for Xi, who is poised to secure a record-breaking third term next month. Although China is not a democracy, Xi has tried to portray himself as a sympathetic ruler with a mandate to be at the helm. He has emphasized populist policies such as poverty alleviation, anti-corruption campaigns and prevention of coronavirus deaths.

Guiyang officials issued a public apology on Sunday and promised to cooperate with an investigation. On Saturday, ahead of the crash, a local official, Wang Jie, said the transports were necessary because there were too many close contacts and not enough quarantine facilities in the city. Wang said 19,977 of the 22,696 quarantine rooms in the city were occupied.

Guizhou has China’s largest coronavirus outbreak, putting heavy pressure on local officials to contain it ahead of a crucial Communist Party congress in October. The province of 39 million inhabitants reported on Sunday 103 symptomatic patients and 2,355 asymptomatic patients.

Guizhou has reported only two covid-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Criticism in China of the strict measures has grown as other countries increasingly return to normal. Beijing has declared its intention to ease pandemic control to improve the quality of life and usher in an economic recovery, but it has been reluctant to end its lockdown policy on local outbreaks.

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Chinese authorities say they cannot risk a huge wave of covid-19 deaths as in the West. Under China’s “zero covid” policy, only 5,226 coronavirus deaths were officially recorded on Sunday, compared with more than 1 million in the United States. A peer-reviewed study published in the Lancet in April estimated that excess mortality in China in 2020 and 2021 could be nearly four times the official number.

Public backlash against lockdowns has been widely censured in China, including on Monday. But a number of criticisms of the Guiyang government were allowed to circulate, including from commentators who are usually government supporters.

Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of China’s state-run Global Times and usually a defender of the government’s pandemic policies, questioned why the bus was on the highway after 2 a.m., when long-distance buses are barred from traveling.

“Why did Guiyang City have to transport people under quarantine in a manner that is suspected of serious violations?” he asked in a post on Weibo late Sunday. “For such a large-scale long-distance transport, did it really have to be done so late at night, and was there really no alternative?”

Few details about those killed in the accident had emerged by Monday afternoon, although an unnamed woman reported her mother’s death on Weibo.

“She hadn’t left the house except to take covid tests for half a month,” the woman wrote. “It is inexplicable that she was killed while being taken to quarantine. I cannot accept such an end.”

The woman did not respond to a request for comment, and The Washington Post was not immediately able to reach other family members of the victims.

Online criticism was also about the conditions on the quarantine buses. A video posted on Weibo on Monday showed passengers dressed in white and blue hazmat suits rapping on the side of a bus and shouting to be let out to use the toilet.

Qu Weiguo, a professor at Fudan University’s English department, asked in an online post for the Guizhou government to release the names and ages of the victims. “Please do not continue to use the cold label, ‘people associated with the epidemic,'” he wrote, quoting the official phrase for those sent into quarantine.

Lyric Li in Seoul and Pei-Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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