Despite hints of a modest easing of pandemic controls—including a shortened quarantine period for inbound travelers, and attempts to “optimize” and adjust a “one-size-fits-all” approach—it remains to be seen whether China’s “zero-COVID” policies will change much on the ground. With over 10,000 new daily cases nationwide, there are currently snap lockdowns in Guangzhou and Zhengzhou, and longer-running “stealth” lockdowns in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, and other regions. And a rash of recent non-COVID-related deaths has fueled fears that extreme pandemic-prevention measures are endangering the physical and mental health of residents and increasing the likelihood of deaths from other causes: accidents, suicides, lack of ambulance transport, and delays or refusals of medical care.
Last week, after a 55-year-old woman in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, experiencing a mental health crisis fell to her death from the 12th floor of her building, locks and metal barricades prevented the woman’s daughter from reaching her mother, and the arrival of two ambulances was seriously delayed. What’s On Weibo compiled a detailed timeline of the incident that reveals a number of snafus and delays that likely contributed to the tragedy. An announcement issued by local police the following day made no mention of any locks or barricades around the building, nor of any delays in emergency services. The announcement drew many skeptical comments online, with one netizen demanding to know: “What about the metal gate that was welded shut? Why didn’t you mention that?” Other commenters criticized the tone of the announcement (“There’s not a trace of humanity in it. It’s like they’re announcing the death of an insect.”) and the indifference of local officials (“The bureaucrats of Inner Mongolia are deaf to the cries coming from behind those metal gates.”)
Days later, yet another incident in Hohhot attracted negative public attention when residents of a housing complex were tricked into leaving their building after water and electricity service was cut off. They were met downstairs by white-suited pandemic prevention personnel who pressured them into quarantining at a local hotel. But the residents were being lied to again: rather than a hotel, they were being transported to a recently-constructed fangcang makeshift field hospital. Video shows the residents, including a pregnant woman, arguing with and begging pandemic personnel not to put them into centralized quarantine.
Most every day, under the Weibo hashtag #Hohhot (#呼和浩特), there are similar stories and pleas for help from local residents dealing with hardships created by the lockdown. One comment archived by CDT Chinese editors reads, “When I had to quarantine at home, a seal was put on my door, and no one came to deliver food for four days. After I had eaten all the food in the house, I broke the seal and went downstairs to try to get something to eat from my neighbors. Community personnel showed up immediately and said they were going to take me to the police station to be detained. I said, ‘Sure, go ahead—at least the police station will have food!’”
In other areas of the country, there have been reports of preventable non-COVID deaths brought about by pandemic lockdown restrictions. In mid-October, a 14-year-old girl in centralized quarantine in the city of Ruzhou, Henan province, died due to a delay in medical treatment. Her father stated that there were no doctors at the quarantine site, and that staff downplayed his daughter’s symptoms (high fever, vomiting, and convulsions) and ignored the family’s pleas for help until it was too late. The timing coincided with the CCP’s 20th Party Congress, and the incident was soon censored: video and other online content about the girl’s death was taken down, and related hashtags were disabled.
On November 1, a three-year-old boy in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, died from carbon monoxide poisoning exacerbated by a long delay in being taken to the hospital. The boy’s father said that, after finding his wife and son unconscious in the kitchen, he called police and ambulance services at least nine times within one hour, but was unable to get a timely response. In the end, over the objections of pandemic-prevention staff guarding a checkpoint, he managed to break out of the complex and transport his son to the hospital in a taxi. Statements issued that same day by the local police and emergency management services made no mention of the delay in emergency response, and attributed the toddler’s death to carbon monoxide poisoning. The boy’s father has said that he believes his son was “indirectly killed” by overly-strict COVID controls. (Lanzhou has been under lockdown since early October.) Weibo hashtags about the boy’s death racked up hundreds of millions of views, but related online content was eventually censored and comments sections were disabled. CDT Chinese editors have archived some of the earlier comments, a selection of which are translated below:
@狗比夹总：Why don’t you open comments? Because your statement is all lies?
@杨锐1: Search your conscience, and then read that statement to your children.
@橙子的夏天yy：On all the major platforms, [related] posts been deleted, videos have been scrubbed, Weibo “hot search” topics have been disabled, etc. Tomorrow morning, what most people will be reading is the so-called “truth” contained in the official statement. [Chinese]
CDT Chinese editors have compiled a number of other stories about deaths and near-misses due to medical treatment delays in locked-down areas. One man wrote a long and heartbreaking post about the death of his (formerly quite healthy) father in Korla, Xinjiang. After testing positive for COVID-19, the man’s condition deteriorated, and he began experiencing fever, cough, and trouble breathing. Despite many attempts to obtain medical treatment or secure transport to a local hospital, the man gradually grew sicker, fell into a coma, and died. A mother in Beijing wrote about her struggle to find treatment for her daughter’s asthma, and about the emergency-room doctor who defied hospital regulations by agreeing to treat the girl; a surgeon in Qingdao wrote about being forbidden from operating on a three-year-old patient due to hospital restrictions; and a breast-cancer patient in Urumqi put out a call for help obtaining a permit that would allow her to go out for life-saving treatment.
Striking a more compassionate note, the municipal government of Ordos, Inner Mongolia, recently issued a statement on WeChat declaring that it would put people first and dedicate itself to protecting “people’s lives and health, legitimate rights and interests.” It also reminded residents that if they encountered situations that put their lives or safety at risk, they had “the right, as written in the Criminal Law and the Civil Code of China, to take measures to save themselves.” Netizens lauded the statement, interpreting it to mean that violating pandemic rules is justified in situations where those very rules put people’s lives at risk. As one WeChat essayist opined, “This is probably the most humane local government announcement to come out since the pandemic started three years ago.”
It is worth noting that any online discussion about hardship under lockdown remains heavily censored, and there is zero tolerance for open criticism of the central government’s official pandemic policy (although some criticism of local government pandemic measures may be tolerated, depending on the situation). Recent examples include unusually stringent censorship of the October 13 Beijing “Sitong Bridge protest,” in which a lone man unfurled banners criticizing China’s “zero-COVID” policy and urging Xi Jinping to step down. Even memes and jokes about the protest have been scrubbed. Songs, essays, memes, comics, and illustrated works that satirize pandemic policy are also routinely deleted online. During the three years of the pandemic, CDT editors have been archiving censorship directives and censored content from all over China, including residents in Sichuan prevented from fleeing an earthquake, complaints of severe hunger and hardship in Guizhou, Tibet and Yili/Ghulja, and most recently, workers escaping an outbreak at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, Henan, that assembles up to 85% of the world’s iPhones.