A Chinese province has launched a criminal investigation into a COVID-19 superspreader event, accusing a man of passing the coronavirus to more than 100 people.
A man surnamed Lin has been identified as the “patient zero” in a current coronavirus outbreak in Tonghua, a city in the northeastern province of Jilin, according to a statement posted by prosecutors on Thursday.
Lin entered Tonghua from the neighboring province Heilongjiang on Jan. 9, and spoke at sales events to promote health products like flaxseed oil, according to authorities. He did not show any symptoms, but tested positive for the virus on Jan. 12, after authorities were told that he was a close contact of a patient in Heilongjiang.
Lin was later accused of causing a “superspreader” event that eventually infected at least 144 people, mostly his elderly clients.
Local police are investigating Lin and his employer under the alleged offense of “obstructing the prevention and control of infectious diseases,” the statement said. The offense comes with a maximum seven years’ imprisonment.
While China has successfully contained the coronavirus epidemic last year, new clusters in the northern part of the country have put new challenges on local authorities. The upcoming Lunar New Year holiday, when migrant workers travel to their hometowns for family reunion, is expected to increase contagion risks.
The cost of disease control measures is huge. In Tonghua, where more than 200 people have been infected in the current outbreak, the government has imposed a strict lockdown and conducted COVID tests for some 400,000 residents three times.
Residents confined at home have complained of having no food to eat, and several local officials have been fired for failing to handle the outbreak.
Despite the disruptions, the possibility of Lin being punished for spreading the coronavirus without knowing that he was infected in the first place has prompted debates online.
“Everyone could become him,” a Weibo user commented.
“It is the same as how overseas people are blaming Wuhan,” another person said. “Now we are also doing it in our country.”
It’s unclear if Lin and his employer have been detained. The Jilin prosecutors’ statement has been taken down after causing an online backlash, but screenshots of it are still available on major state media outlets.
In a commentary on Friday, the state-run news agency Xinhua said law enforcement needs to be cautious in pursuing criminal cases against COVID patients. “Without sufficient legal grounds,” the commentary said, “it could lead to a situation where everyone was terrified for themselves.”
This month, a court in Beijing sentenced a Chinese woman to one year suspended imprisonment after she took fever medications and lied about her positive COVID-19 test results before boarding a flight from the U.S. to Beijing. 63 people had to be quarantined as her close contacts during the journey.
A number of coronavirus patients in China have suffered from cyberbullying after being reported as the first cases in new clusters. Some of them have had their personal information leaked and received harassing calls.
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