China Zero-Covid: As anger mounts and tragedies mount, Beijing shows no sign of backing down

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Beijing
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 their home on the outskirts of Beijing went under lockdown.

At the time, they didn’t even realize the sudden Covid restrictions had been imposed – there was no advance warning and there were no cases at the apartment building where Zhou’s parents and 10-year-old son lived, he said.

The family found out the hard way when Zhou’s father was denied immediate emergency medical assistance after he suddenly had trouble breathing during the video call. Zhou and his son called a dozen for an ambulance, he said, claiming security guards prevented relatives from entering the building to take the 58-year-old grandfather to a hospital.

An ambulance finally arrived an hour later 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 father,” Zhou told CNN at his home in Beijing, breaking down in tears. He said he was given no explanation as to why the ambulance was taking so long to arrive, only a death certificate with the wrong date of death.

Zhou’s anger is part of a growing stream of dissent over China’s unrelenting zero-Covid lockdowns, which officials claim are necessary to protect people’s lives from a virus the, has killed just six people out of tens of thousands of symptomatic cases reported over the past six months, according to the official count.

But increasingly, the lockdown — not the virus — is being blamed for heartbreaking deaths that have sparked national outrage on social media.

On the same day Zhou lost his father, a three-year-old boy died of gas poisoning in a cordoned-off compound in the northwest city of Lanzhou after he was prevented from being taken to a hospital immediately. Two weeks later, a 4-month-old girl died in quarantine at a hotel in downtown Zhengzhou after a 12-hour delay in receiving medical care.

Many other families, like Zhou’s, are likely to have suffered similar tragedies outside of the social media spotlight.

Zhou said he contacted several state-run media outlets in Beijing to cover his story, but no reporters came. In growing desperation and anger, he turned to foreign media – even though he knew the risk of government repercussions. CNN only uses his last name to mitigate that risk.

“I just want justice done for my father. why did you lock us up Why did you take my father’s life?” he said.

Across China, anger and frustration at zero-Covid have reached new heights, prompting rare scenes of protest, as local authorities rushed to reintroduce restrictions amid record infections – despite a limited relaxation of some rules recently announced by the government.

Last week in the southern city of Guangzhou, some residents protested an extended lockdown by tearing down barriers and marching down the streets.

In downtown Zhengzhou this week, workers at the world’s largest iPhone assembly plant clashed with security officers in hazmat suits over a delay in bonus payments and chaotic Covid rules.

And on Thursday in the sprawling southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, a resident delivered a rousing speech criticized the Covid lockdown at his residence. “Without freedom, I’d rather die!” he shouted to a cheering crowd, who hailed him as a “hero” and wrested him from the grips of several police officers who had tried to take him away.

Those acts of defiance mirrored a wave of discontent online, particularly from Chinese football fans – many under some form of lockdown or restrictions – who could only watch from their homes as tens of thousands of rowdy fans packed stadiums at the World Cup in Qatar.

“None of the fans will be seen wearing face masks or asked to submit proof of Covid test results. Don’t they live on the same planet as us?” asked a Wechat article questioning China’s insistence on zero Covid, which went viral before it was censored.

There are signs that Chinese officials are feeling the heat of growing public discontent, which has added to the heavy social and economic toll caused by the lockdown extension.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government released a 20-point guideline to limit disruption to zero-Covid rules on daily life and business. It shortened the quarantine from 10 to eight days for close contacts of infected people and for those entering the country. It has also eliminated quarantine requirements for secondary contacts, prevented unnecessary mass test drives and lifted a key restriction on international flights.

The announcement had raised hopes of a reversal towards reopening and sparked a rally in Chinese stocks. But a surge in infections as China heads into its fourth winter of the pandemic is quickly dampening such hopes. On Friday, the country reported a record 32,695 local cases as infections for a second straight day topped the previous peak recorded in April during months of Shanghai’s lockdown.

Covid workers dressed in hazmat suits help delivery drivers drop off goods for residents under lockdown in Beijing on November 24.

Rather than relaxing controls, many local officials are returning to the zero-tolerance playbook, attempting to root out infections as soon as they flare up.

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

The northern city of Shijiazhuang was among the first to cancel mass testing. It also allowed students to return to schools after a long period of online education. But as cases rose over the weekend, authorities imposed another lockdown on Monday, urging residents to stay home.

On Tuesday, the financial hub of Shanghai banned anyone arriving in the city from venues such as malls, restaurants, supermarkets and gyms for five days. Authorities also closed cultural and entertainment venues halfway across the city.

In Guangzhou, officials this week extended the lockdown of Haizhu District — where the protest took place — for the fifth time and sealed off the most populous Baiyun District.

Zhengzhou, home to the Foxconn factory where workers clashed with police, imposed a five-day lockdown on key city districts.

People ride bicycles on an empty street near Beijing's central business district on November 24.

In Beijing, streets in the largest district, Chaoyang, are largely empty as authorities urged residents to stay home and ordered shops to close. Schools in several districts also switched to online instruction this week.

Low vaccination rates among the elderly in China have prompted fears that easing restrictions could overwhelm the country’s healthcare system. By November 11, about two-thirds of people aged 80 and over 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 renewed tightening of Covid controls reflected a typical political dilemma in China: “If you relax politics, there will be chaos; but when you get dressed it will be suffocating.

Huang said he does not expect any fundamental changes to the zero-Covid policy in the short term. “Because the local government incentive structure has not changed. They will still be held accountable 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 intended as a linchpin for living with the virus.

The measures are about “optimizing” existing Covid prevention and control policies, said Shen Hongbing, a disease control official, at a news conference last week. “They are not a relaxation (of control), let alone a reopening or ‘laying flat,'” he said.

Back on the outskirts of Beijing, Zhou said while the zero-Covid policy “is beneficial for the majority,” its implementation at the local level has been too draconian.

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

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