On Saturday night, Xiao Ya, her sister, and her neighbors were ushered onto a bus bound for centralized quarantine in southwestern China. She had not tested positive for COVID-19 and neither did anyone in her building, she told her friend in a text message, but she received a call from pandemic workers telling her to pack up as her neighborhood was deemed at risk.
As the bus set off, Xiao Ya sent another text complaining about the stuffy cabin. All passengers had to wear hazmat suits and they couldn’t open the windows. More than an hour later, past midnight, she wrote another message, “I’ve been sitting for so long, my butt feels numb.”
That was the last message her friend received from her.
Xiao Ya was among 27 killed after a bus overturned on a highway in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou in the early hours of Sunday. The 20 others on board were injured. Xiao Ya’s sister suffered an injury to her leg, her friend confirmed to Chinese business news outlet Caixin, which used Xiao Ya as a pseudonym.
Authorities are still investigating the cause of the crash by Tuesday afternoon. But many have linked the tragedy to China’s harsh anti-pandemic measures and openly pushed back against the disruptions caused by the country’s zero-COVID approach to controlling the virus.
“They would have been fine at home, yet they were sent on a path to death,” read a top comment on a report of the incident on Chinese social media site Weibo.
A hashtag about the crash drew more than a billion views on the platform before it was censored, along with some news reports and criticisms of China’s COVID policies.
While U.S. President Joe Biden recently declared the pandemic over, and much of the world now considers the disease to be endemic, China’s response to the virus is effectively stuck in 2020.
As the country experiences the broadest outbreak since the pandemic started, residents are grappling with snap lockdowns at malls and offices, confinements at home, and daily nucleic acid tests. In Tibet and Xinjiang, two of the country’s most repressed regions, COVID chaos recently sparked public outcries, as residents said they were denied food and medical help.
The bus that toppled was transporting passengers from the city of Guiyang to Libo, a neighboring county more than 200 km away, as the city had run out of quarantine space, Chinese outlets reported. Other cities, including Xian, Shanghai and Hangzhou, have implemented similar measures in the past, where they moved entire communities to centralized quarantine in the outskirts to prevent an outbreak in urban areas.
But the policy of requiring close contacts to be admitted in centralized quarantine is outdated, said Jin Dong-yan, a virologist from the University of Hong Kong. “Examples elsewhere, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, have shown that people aren’t necessarily at less risk when they are isolated in quarantine facilities, instead of their homes,” Jin told VICE World News.
In a press conference on Sunday, Lin Gang, the vice mayor of Guiyang, bowed in apology and expressed “deep sorrow and remorse” for the casualties. Authorities also suspended three junior officials and pledged to investigate the cause of the accident.
According to a now-deleted post by China’s Ministry of Transport, the deadly accident took place at 2:40 a.m., which suggested the bus violated national safety regulations that ban long-distance road passenger transportation from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. over concerns of fatigue.
Many Chinese social media users questioned the necessity of the transfer and why it took place late at night.
Nie Riming, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law, wrote in an online column that these transfers often take place at night to avoid drawing public attention. He criticized the practice.
“The bus crash in Guiyang is not an isolated accident... Pandemic measures cannot be above the law,” Nie wrote, pointing out other harsh anti-COVID measures in the country, such as sealing residents in their homes during quarantine, blocking roads with barriers, and overusing disinfectants. His post has been removed.