As anger mounts and tragedies mount, China shows no sign of budging on Zero-Covid

By Selina Wang and Nectar Gan, CNN

Zhou, a car dealer in northeast China, last saw his father alive in a video chat on the afternoon of November 1, hours after his home on the outskirts of Beijing was locked up.

At the time, they weren’t even aware of the sudden covid restrictions that had been put in place: There was no advance warning, and the apartment building where Zhou’s parents and their 10-year-old son lived had no cases, he said.

The family found out the hard way, when Zhou’s father was denied immediate emergency medical help after he suddenly began having difficulty breathing during the video call. Zhou and her son made a dozen calls for an ambulance, she said, alleging that security guards prevented relatives from entering the building to take the 58-year-old grandfather to a hospital.

An hour later, an ambulance finally arrived to take Zhou’s father to a hospital just five minutes away. But it was too late to save him.

“The local government killed my dad,” Zhou told CNN at her Beijing home, breaking down in tears. He said he received no explanation as to why the ambulance took so long to arrive, only a death certificate stating the wrong date of death.

Zhou’s anger is part of a growing outpouring of dissent toward China’s relentless zero-Covid lockdowns, which officials insist are necessary to protect people’s lives against a virus. that, by the official count, it has killed just six people out of tens of thousands of symptomatic cases reported in the past six months.

But increasingly, the restrictions, not the virus, are being blamed for the heartbreaking deaths that have sparked outrage across the country on social media.

On the same day that Zhou lost his father, a 3-year-old boy died of gas poisoning at a gated compound in the northwestern city of Lanzhou, after being prevented from taking him immediately to a hospital. Two weeks later, a 4-month-old girl died in quarantine at a hotel in the central city of Zhengzhou after a 12-hour delay in medical care.

It is likely that many more families, like Zhou’s, have suffered similar tragedies outside of the social media spotlight.

Zhou said he contacted various state-run media outlets in Beijing to report his story, but no reporters came. Amid growing desperation and anger, he turned to foreign media, despite knowing the risk of government repercussions. CNN is only using her last name to mitigate that risk.

“I just want to get justice for my dad. Why did you lock us up? Why did you take my dad’s life?” he said.

growing discontent

Across China, anger and frustration with zero covid has reached new heights and led to rare scenes of protest, as local authorities rushed to reintroduce restrictions amid record infections, despite a recent announcement from the government of a limited easing of some rules.

Last week, in the southern city of Guangzhou, some residents revolted against a prolonged lockdown by tearing down barriers and marching through the streets.

In the central city of Zhengzhou this week, workers at the world’s largest iPhone assembly factory clashed with security officers in hazmat suits over a late bonus payment and chaotic Covid rules.

And on Thursday, in the sprawling southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, a resident delivered a scathing speech criticizing the Covid lockdown at his residential complex. “Without freedom, I would rather die!” he shouted to a cheering crowd, who hailed him as a “hero” and freed him from the clutches of several policemen who had tried to take him away.

These acts of defiance echoed an outpouring of discontent online, especially from Chinese soccer fans, many under some form of lockdown or restriction, who have only been able to watch from home as tens of thousands of raucous fans fill stadiums in the World Cup in Qatar. .

“None of the fans are seen wearing face masks, nor are they told to present proof of Covid test results. Aren’t they living on the same planet as us? asked a Wechat article questioning China’s insistence on zero-Covid, which went viral before being censored.

There are signs that Chinese officials are feeling the heat of growing public discontent, which has come on top of the heavy social and economic losses inflicted by the widening lockdowns.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government released a 20-point guideline to limit the disruption of zero-COVID rules on daily life and the economy. It shortened the quarantine from 10 days to eight days for close contacts of infected people and for incoming travelers. It also removed quarantine requirements for secondary contacts, discouraged unnecessary mass testing, and removed a major restriction on international flights.

The announcement had raised hopes of a turn toward reopening, prompting a rally in Chinese stocks. But a surge in infections as China heads into its fourth winter of the pandemic is quickly dashing those hopes. On Friday, the country reported a record 32,695 local cases, as infections for the second day in a row exceeded the previous peak recorded in April during Shanghai’s months of lockdown.

What reopening?

Instead of relaxing controls, many local officials are going back to the zero-tolerance playbook, trying to stamp out infections as soon as they break out.

Some of the cities that dropped mass testing requirements following the announcement are already tightening other Covid restrictions.

The northern city of Shijiazhuang was one of the first to cancel mass testing. It also allowed students to return to schools after a long period of online classes. But as cases spiked over the weekend, authorities reimposed the lockdown on Monday, telling residents to stay home.

On Tuesday, Shanghai’s financial center barred anyone arriving in the city from entering places including shopping malls, restaurants, supermarkets and gyms for five days. Authorities also closed cultural and entertainment venues in half of the city.

In Guangzhou, officials this week extended the lockdown in the Haizhu district, where the protest took place, for the fifth time and locked down the most populous Baiyun district.

Zhengzhou, home to the Foxconn factory where workers clashed with police, has imposed a five-day lockdown on its main urban districts.

In Beijing, the streets of its largest district, Chaoyang, are largely empty as authorities urged residents to stay home and ordered businesses to close. Schools in several districts also moved to online classes this week.

Low vaccination rates among the elderly in China have raised fears that an easing of restrictions could overwhelm the country’s healthcare system. As of November 11, about two-thirds of people 80 years and older had received two doses and only 40% had received a booster shot.

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the tightening of covid controls reflects a typical public policy dilemma in China: “If you relax policy, there will be chaos; but if you squeeze, it will be suffocating.”

Huang said he does not expect any fundamental changes to the zero-covid policy any time soon. “Because the incentive structure of local governments has not been changed. They are still responsible for the Covid situation in their jurisdiction,” he said.

For their part, Chinese officials have repeatedly denied that the 20 measures listed in the government guidelines were meant to turn life around with the virus.

The measures try to “optimize” the existing Covid prevention and control policy, Shen Hongbing, a disease control official, said at a press conference last week. “They are not a loosening (of control), let alone a reopening or ‘going flat,’” he said.

Back outside Beijing, Zhou said that while the zero-Covid policy “is beneficial to the majority”, its implementation at the local level had been too draconian.

“I don’t want things like this to happen again in China and anywhere in the world,” he said. “I lost my father. My son lost his beloved grandfather. I am furious now.

The CNN Wire
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