TAIPEI, Taiwan — A night bus accident that killed 27 people in southwestern China this week sparked a firestorm of anger online over the harshness of the country’s strict COVID-19 policies.
The initial police report did not say who the passengers were or where they were going, but it later emerged that they were headed to a quarantine site on the outskirts of their city of Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province.
The bus with 47 people on board crashed around 2:40 a.m. on Sunday. City officials announced many hours later that the passengers were under “medical observation,” confirming reports that they were being quarantined.
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Following public anger, Guiyang fired three officials in charge of Yunyan district, where residents had been detained, the provincial government said on Monday. The deputy mayor of Guiyang apologized at a press conference, bowed and observed a moment of silence.
Online, many wondered about the logic behind transporting people out of Guiyang, accusing the government of moving them so the city would no longer report new cases.
“Will this ever end? On top searches (on social media), there are all kinds of pandemic prevention situations going on every day, creating unnecessary panic and making people nervous,” one person wrote. “Is there scientific validity to quarantining people, one car after another?”
Guiyang officials had announced that the city would achieve “COVID social zero” by Monday, a day after the accident.
The phrase means that new infections are found only among people who are already under surveillance, such as those in a centralized quarantine center or who are close contacts of existing patients, so the virus is no longer spreading in the community.
China has managed the pandemic through a series of measures known as “zero cleaning” or “zero COVID,” maintained through strict lockdowns and mass testing.
The approach saved lives before vaccines were widely available, as people refrained from public gatherings and regularly wore masks. However, as other countries have opened up and loosened some of the most onerous restrictions, China has remained steadfast in its zero COVID strategy.
While China has reduced the quarantine time for people arriving abroad and said it would start issuing student visas, the policy remains strict in the country. Officials are concerned about the potential death toll and the impact any relaxation would have on the country’s strained medical system.
Zero COVID has also become a political issue, with many Chinese at one point celebrating it as a sign of their country’s superiority over the US, which has had more than a million COVID deaths.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has cited China’s approach as a “great strategic success” and evidence of the “significant advantages” of its political system over Western liberal democracies.
Yet even as other countries open up, the humanitarian costs of China’s pandemic approach have risen.
Earlier this year in Shanghai, desperate residents complained of being unable to obtain medicine or even groceries during the city’s two-month lockdown, while some died in hospitals from lack of medical care as the city restricted movement. Last week, residents of the western Xinjiang region said they went hungry during a more than 40-day lockdown.
According to FreeWeibo, a website that tracks censored posts on the popular social media platform, three of the top 10 searches on Weibo are related to the bus accident.
Many looked at the images of the bus shared by users of social networks. One photo showed the bus after it had been recovered from the crash site. Its roof was crushed and parts were missing. Another photo allegedly showed the driver decked out in a full white protective suit.
Online users questioned how a driver could see properly when his face was covered and why he was driving so late at night. Many comments were censored, but some expressing discontent with the current approach to the pandemic remained.
“I hope the price of this pain can drive faster change, but if possible, I don’t want to pay such a high price for such a change,” read the most liked comment on an online report about the accident. by the state chain CCTV. “Condolences.”
One of the bus passengers said his entire building had been taken over for central quarantine, according to a report by Caixin, a business news outlet. However, his apartment building had not reported a single case, according to a friend who shared his text conversation with Caixin.
Another popular comment quoted a proverb: “These human lives are like straw.”
On Tuesday, Guizhou reported 41 new cases of COVID-19 across the province. The province has been on high alert in recent weeks after a case was discovered in late August. It has locked down its capital city, using the euphemism “quiet period” to describe the move, meaning people are not allowed to leave their homes.
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