On Saturday night, Xiao Ya, her sister and her neighbors were taken to a bus bound for centralized quarantine in southwestern China. She hadn’t tested positive for COVID-19 and no one in her building, she told her friend in a text message, but she got a call from pandemic workers telling her to pack up because her neighborhood was deemed in danger.
As the bus left, Xiao Ya sent another text complaining about the stuffy cabin. All passengers had to wear hazmat suits and were unable to open the windows. More than an hour later, after midnight, she wrote another message: “I’ve been sitting for so long, my ass feels numb.”
That was the last message her friend received from her.
Xiao Ya was one of 27 killed in a bus overturned on a highway in southwestern China’s Guizhou province in the early hours of Sunday morning. The 20 others on board were injured. Xiao Ya’s sister sustained an injury to her leg, her friend confirmed to the Chinese business news outlet Caixin, which Xiao Ya used as a pseudonym.
Authorities are still investigating the cause of the accident on Tuesday afternoon. But many have linked the tragedy to China’s tough anti-pandemic measures and openly pushed back against the disruptions caused by the country’s zero-COVID approach to contain the virus.
“They would have been fine at home, yet they were sent on the path to death,” read a top commentary on a report of the incident on Chinese social media site Weibo.
A hashtag about the crash attracted more than a billion views on the platform before it was censored, along with some news reports and criticism of China’s COVID policy.
While US President Joe Biden recently declared the pandemic over, and much of the world now considers the disease endemic, China’s response to the virus is effectively stuck in 2020.
As the country experiences its widest outbreak since the start of the pandemic, residents are grappling with rapid closures in malls and offices, incarcerations at home and daily nucleic acid tests. In Tibet and Xinjiang, two of the country’s most oppressed regions, the COVID chaos recently sparked public outcry as residents said they were denied food and medical care.
The bus that overturned was carrying passengers from Guiyang city to Libo, a neighboring province more than 200 km away, as the city’s quarantine space had run out, Chinese stores reported. Other cities, including Xian, Shanghai and Hangzhou, have taken similar measures in the past, moving entire communities to centralized suburban quarantine to prevent an outbreak in urban areas.
But the policy of requiring close contacts to be placed in centralized quarantine is outdated, said Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. “Examples elsewhere, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, have shown that people are not necessarily less at risk if they are isolated in quarantine facilities, rather than in their homes,” Jin told VICE World News.
In a news conference on Sunday, Guiyang’s vice mayor Lin Gang bowed apologetically and expressed “deep sadness and regret” for the victims. Authorities have also suspended three subordinate officials and promised to investigate the cause of the accident.
According to a now-deleted message from China’s Ministry of Transport, the fatal accident occurred at 2:40 AM, indicating that the bus violated national safety regulations prohibiting long-distance road transport of passengers from 2 AM to 5 AM due to concerns about fatigue. .
Many Chinese social media users questioned the necessity of the transfer and why it happened late at night.
Nie Riming, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law, wrote in an online column that these transfers often take place overnight so as not to attract the public’s attention. He criticized the practice.
“The bus crash in Guiyang is not an isolated accident… Pandemic measures cannot be above the law,” Nie wrote, pointing to other tough anti-COVID measures in the country, such as locking residents in their homes during quarantine, blocking roads with barriers and excessive use of disinfectants. His message has been deleted.
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