China zero-Covid: As anger mounts and tragedies pile up, Beijing shows no signs of giving in

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Zhou, a car dealer in northeastern China, last saw his father alive in a video chat on the afternoon of Nov. 1, hours after their home on the outskirts of Beijing was under lockdown.

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

The family found out the hard way when Zhou’s father was denied immediate medical attention after he suddenly started having trouble breathing during the video call. Zhou and his son called an ambulance 10 times, he said, claiming guards prevented relatives from entering the building to take the 58-year-old grandfather to a hospital.

An hour later, an ambulance finally arrived 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, bursting into tears. He said he was not given an explanation as to why the ambulance took so long, only a death certificate with the wrong date of death.

Zhou’s anger is part of a growing tide of dissent over China’s relentless zero-Covid lockdowns, which officials say are necessary to protect people’s lives from a virus That, killed only six people out of tens of thousands of symptomatic cases reported in the past six months, according to the official count.

But increasingly, the restrictions — not the virus — are being blamed for heartbreaking deaths that have sparked nationwide outrage on social media.

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On the same day Zhou lost his father, a 3-year-old boy died of gas poisoning in a closed camp in the northwestern city of Lanzhou after he could not be immediately taken to a hospital. Two weeks later, a 4-month-old girl in hotel quarantine in the central city of Zhengzhou died after a 12-hour delay in medical care.

Many more families, like Zhou’s, have likely experienced similar tragedies outside of the social media spotlight.

Zhou said he contacted several Beijing state media to report on his story, but no reporters came. Amid growing desperation and anger, he turned to foreign media, despite the risk of government repercussions. CNN only uses his last name to mitigate that risk.

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

Workers erect metal barriers outside a gated community in Beijing on Nov. 24.

Across China, anger and frustration with zero-Covid have reached new heights, leading to rare scenes of protest, as local authorities scrambled to reintroduce restrictions amid record infections – despite a recent government announcement of limited easing of some restrictions. lines.

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

In the central city of Zhengzhou, workers at the world’s largest iPhone assembly plant clashed with security guards in safety gear this week over a delay in bonus payments and chaotic Covid rules.

And on Thursday, in the sprawling metropolis of Chongqing in the southwest, a resident gave a scorching speech criticism of the Covid lockdown on his residential complex. “Without freedom I would rather die!” he shouted to a cheering crowd, who called him a “hero” and wrestled him from the clutches of several police officers who had tried to take him away.

These acts of defiance reflected a wave of discontent online, particularly from Chinese football fans – many under some form of lockdown or restrictions – who have been left home alone to watch as tens of thousands of vociferous fans pack stadiums during the World Cup in Qatar.

“None of the fans are seen wearing face masks, or told to submit proof of Covid test results. Don’t they live on the same planet as us?” asked a Wechat article questioning China’s push for zero-Covid, which went viral before being censored.

There are signs that Chinese officials are feeling the heat of growing public discontent, which has come on top of the heavy social and economic toll caused by the deepening lockdowns.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government released a 20-point guideline to limit the disruption of zero-Covid rules to everyday life and the economy. It shortened the quarantine from 10 to 8 days for close contacts of infected people and for incoming travelers. It also removed quarantine requirements for secondary contacts, discouraged unnecessary mass test drives and removed a major restriction on international flights.

The announcement had raised hopes of a pivot toward reopening, sparking a rally in Chinese stocks. But a flurry of infections as China enters its fourth winter of the pandemic is quickly dampening those hopes. On Friday, the country reported a record 32,695 local cases as infections surpassed the previous peak in April during Shanghai’s months-long lockdown for the second day in a row.

Covid workers in a Hazmat suit help delivery drivers deliver goods for residents under lockdown in Beijing on November 24.

Rather than easing controls, many local officials are reverting to the zero-tolerance playbook and trying to stamp out infections as soon as they flare up.

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

The northern city of Shijiazhuang was one of the first to cancel mass testing. It also enabled students to return to schools after a long period of online classes. But as the number of cases increased over the weekend, authorities re-introduced a lockdown on Monday and told them to stay at home.

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

In Guangzhou, officials this week extended the lockdown for the fifth time in the Haizhu district – where the protest took place – 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 urban districts.

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

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

Low vaccination coverage among the elderly in China has led to fears that easing restrictions could overwhelm the country’s health system. By Nov. 11, about two-thirds of people aged 80 and older had received two doses and only 40% had received a booster.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the tightening of Covid controls reflected a typical public policy dilemma in China: “If you relax policies, there will be chaos; but if you tighten up, it will be suffocating.

Huang said he does not expect fundamental changes to the zero-Covid policy anytime soon. “Because the incentive structure of local governments has not changed. They are still being held responsible for the Covid situation in their jurisdiction,” he said.

For their part, Chinese officials have repeatedly denied that the 20 measures listed in government guidelines were intended as a pivot to living with the virus.

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

Back in Beijing’s suburbs, Zhou said that while the zero-Covid policy “benefits the majority”, its implementation at the local level was too draconian.

“I don’t want this kind of thing to happen again in China and anywhere in the world,” he said. “I lost my father. My son lost his beloved grandfather. I am furious now.”

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