For many, the bus crash was not just a traffic accident: It reflected the glaring safety risks that local officials across China have repeatedly accepted in pursuit of the “zero covid” policy championed by President Xi Jinping. Late-night quarantine transports have been routine, allowing officials to tout a rapid response, despite the risks from reduced visibility and bleary-eyed drivers.
Since the pandemic began, videos have circulated of local authorities welding apartment doors shut to ensure lockdown compliance, despite the danger to residents in the event of a fire. In Shanghai this year, several residents died after they were prohibited from leaving lockdown to go to the hospital. In Chengdu this month, building managers told some residents to stay indoors during an earthquake to comply with pandemic controls.
For a time, the Chinese public largely went along with the draconian measures. But of late, many have begun to question the economic and human costs of an approach that bears some hallmarks of disastrous campaigns of the past.
The turning public opinion is a challenge for Xi, who is poised to secure a previous-breaking third term next month. Although China is not a democracy, Xi has sought to present himself as a likable ruler with a mandate to stay at the helm. He has emphasized populist policies like poverty alleviation, anti-corruption campaigns and prevention of coronavirus deaths.
Guiyang officials made a public apology on Sunday and pledged to cooperate with an investigation. On Saturday, ahead of the crash, one local official, Wang Jie, said the transports were necessary as there were too many close contacts and not enough quarantine facilities in the city. Wang said 19,977 of the 22,696 quarantine rooms in the city were occupied.
Guizhou currently has the largest coronavirus outbreak nationwide, putting heavy pressure on local officials to quell it before a crucial Communist Party congress in October. The province of 39 million residents reported 103 symptomatic patients and 2,355 asymptomatic patients on Sunday.
Guizhou has only reported two covid-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.
The criticism within China over the strict measures has grown as other countries increasingly return to normal. Beijing has declared its intention to ease pandemic controls to improve quality of life and usher in an economic recovery, but has remained unwilling to end its lockdown policy for local outbreaks.
Chinese authorities say they cannot risk a huge wave of covid-19 deaths like in the West. Under China’s “zero covid” policy, there have only been 5,226 coronavirus deaths officially recorded as of Sunday, compared with more than 1 million in the United States. A peer-reviewed study published in Lancet in April estimated the excess mortalities in China in 2020 and 2021 could be nearly four times the official tally.
Public backlash against lockdowns has been widely censored in China, including on Monday. But a number of critics of the Guiyang government were allowed to circulate, including from commentators who are usually government supporters.
Hu Xijin, the former editor in chief of China’s state-run Global Times, and usually a defender of the government’s pandemic policy, questioned why the bus was on the expressway after 2 am, when long-distance buses are barred from driving.
“Why did Guiyang city have to transport quarantine subjects in a manner that is suspected of serious violations?” he asked, in a post on Weibo late Sunday. “For such a large-scale, long-distance transport, did it really have to be done so late at night, and was there really no alternative?”
Few details of those killed in the crash had emerged by Monday afternoon, though one unnamed woman reported her mother’s death on Weibo.
“She hadn’t gone out of the house except to take covid tests for half a month,” wrote the woman. “It is inexplicable that she was killed while being bused in quarantine. I can’t accept such an ending.”
The woman did not respond to a request for comment, and The Washington Post was unable to immediately reach other family members of victims.
Online criticism also centered on harsh conditions on the quarantine buses. A video posted on Weibo on Monday showed passengers dressed in white and blue hazmat suits rapping on the sides of the bus and yelling to be let out to use the toilet.
Qu Weiguo, a professor at Fudan University’s English department, called in an online post for the Guizhou government to release the names and ages of the victims. “Please don’t keep using that cold label, ‘people associated with the epidemic,’” he wrote, citing the official phrase for those sent to quarantine.
Lyric Li in Seoul, and Pei-Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.