BEIJING - A bus crash that killed more than two dozen people in China’s south-west has ignited a wave of criticism of the harsh Covid Zero policies that are taking a heavy toll domestically and have left the country isolated.
A local official apologised for the deaths of 27 people, and the injury of 20 others, when a bus being used to ferry them to quarantine facilities overturned early Sunday morning in Guizhou province.
While Guiyang city’s deputy mayor vowed to investigate the incident and hold those responsible accountable, public anger is mounting, with the incident swiftly becoming a lightning rod for frustrations at the government’s Covid-19 approach.
A hashtag related to the apology had over 320 million views on China’s Twitter-like social media Weibo.
Many users expressed concerns about how easily they could find themselves in a similar situation, as officials continue to cast a wide net for determining who gets sent to quarantine.
Others said an apology wasn’t enough and officials should look to change some of China’s toughest virus restrictions.
Users circulated unverified photos and videos showing the bus driver dressed in personal protective equipment, questioning whether it made driving more difficult.
Others pointed out that the time of the crash – around 2:40am local time – violates a rule that restricts long distance bus travel in the early morning hours.
Guiyang city had set a goal to achieve Covid Zero by Sept. 19, Initium News reported, citing an internal government document, sparking concerns that passengers were being taken away in order for the city to report fewer cases.
Growing public anger around China’s Covid Zero rules is a challenge for President Xi Jinping, who’s expected to secure a third term as leader at the Party Congress in October.
Mr Xi has made the tough virus restrictions a cornerstone of his leadership, and Beijing views the measures as key in averting the death tolls seen in other parts of the world.
“This is the exact kind of incident the leadership wants to avoid, at all cost, before the Congress, to keep social stability,” said Mr Andy Chen, a senior analyst with Beijing-based consultancy Trivium China.
“It also happens to be the kind of event people who oppose the ongoing Covid-19--control policies will try to play up and point to to demand changes.”
The 27 deaths compares with just two Covid fatalities in Guizhou since the start of the pandemic.
The province reported 364 local infections for Sunday, according to the National Health Commission. Nationwide, China recorded 807 Covid cases.
The crash also risks overshadowing the lifting of a two-week lockdown of the southwestern megacity of Chengdu, in which officials successfully stamped out an outbreak through early curbs, without any Covid-19 deaths.
Safety must come first at anytime and it also applies to virus prevention and control, according to former editor Hu Xijin, of the Communist Party’s Global Times.
“The epidemic is urgent, but we can never take the risk to transit people in the middle of a night,” Mr Hu wrote on his personal Weibo account. BLOOMBERG