By HUIZHONG WU – Associated Press
TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — An overnight bus crash that killed 27 people in southwest China this week has sparked a storm of anger online at the harshness of the country’s tough 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 being directed to a quarantine location outside their city of Guiyang, 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” and confirmed reports that they were being quarantined.
After public anger, Guiyang fired three officials in charge of the Yunyan district where residents were picked up, the provincial government said Monday. The deputy mayor of Guiyang apologized at a press conference, bowed and observed a minute’s silence.
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Online, many wondered about the logic behind transporting people from Guiyang, accusing the government of persuading them to stop the city reporting new cases.
“Will this ever end? In the top searches (on social media) every day there are all sorts of pandemic prevention situations that create unnecessary panic and make people nervous,” one person wrote. “Is it scientifically valid to quarantine people, one car at a time?”
Guiyang officials had said the city would achieve “social zero COVID” by Monday, a day after the crash.
The phrase means that new infections are only found in people who are already being monitored – for example in a central quarantine facility or in close contact with existing patients – so the virus stops spreading in the community.
China has managed the pandemic through a series of measures known as “Clearing to Zero” or “Zero COVID,” sustained by strict lockdowns and mass testing.
The approach saved lives before vaccines became widespread, as people refrained from public gatherings and regularly wore masks. However, while other countries have opened up and eased some of the most onerous restrictions, China has stuck to its zero-COVID strategy.
While China has reduced its quarantine period for overseas arrivals and announced it will start issuing student visas, the policy at home remains strict. Officials are concerned about the potential death toll and the impact loosening would have on the country’s overburdened medical system.
Zero COVID has also become a political issue and was once hailed by many Chinese as a sign of their country’s superiority over the US, which has had more than a million COVID-related deaths.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called China’s approach a “major strategic success” and evidence of the “significant advantages” of its political system over Western liberal democracies.
But even as other countries open up, the humanitarian costs of China’s pandemic approach have increased.
Earlier this year, distraught residents in Shanghai complained they couldn’t get medicine or even food during the city’s two-month lockdown, while some died in hospitals from a lack of medical supplies as the city restricted movement. Last week, residents of Xinjiang’s western region said they had become 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 related to the bus accident.
Many have become fixated on images of the bus shared by social media users. A photo showed the bus after it had been recovered from the scene of the accident. The roof was smashed and parts were missing. Another photo allegedly showed the driver in a white hazmat suit.
Online users questioned how a driver can see properly when their face is covered and why they are driving so late at night. Many comments were censored, but some that expressed dissatisfaction with the current approach to the pandemic persisted.
“I hope the price of this pain can push change more quickly, but if it’s possible I don’t want to pay such a high price for such a change,” read the most-liked comment on an online report the accident by the state broadcaster CCTV. “Sympathy.”
According to a report by Caixin, a business news outlet, one of the passengers on the bus said her entire building was placed under central quarantine. But her apartment building hadn’t reported a single case, according to a friend who shared her text conversation with Caixin.
Another popular comment quoted a saying: “These lives are like straw.”
On Tuesday, Guizhou reported 41 new COVID-19 cases across the province. The province has been on high alert for the past few weeks after a case was discovered in late August. It has locked down its capital, describing the move with the euphemistic “quiet time,” meaning people are not allowed to leave their homes.
Caroline Chen, Associated Press news assistant in Beijing, contributed to this report.
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