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

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Zhou, a car dealer in the northeast Chinalast saw his father alive in a video chat on the afternoon of November 1, hours after their home on the far outskirts of Beijing was locked down.

At the time, they were not even aware that the swift 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 that out the hard way when Zhou’s father was denied immediate emergency medical care after he suddenly began struggling to breathe during the video call. Zhou and his son made a dozen calls for an ambulance, he said, claiming security guards blocked 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, breaking down in tears. He said he has received no explanation as to why the ambulance took so long to arrive, just a death certificate stating the wrong date of death.

Zhou’s anger is part of a growing tide of dissent against China tireless zero covid lockdownswhich officials insist are necessary to protect people’s lives from a virus to, according to the official count, has killed only six people from tens of thousands of symptomatic cases reported in the last six months.

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 cordoned-off area in the northwestern city of Lanzhou after he was blocked from being taken to a hospital immediately. Two weeks later, a 4-month-old girl died in hotel quarantine in the central city of Zhengzhou after a 12-hour delay in medical treatment.

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

Zhou said he contacted several state media in Beijing to report his story, but no reporters came. Amid growing desperation and anger, he turned to foreign media – despite knowing the risk of repercussions from the government. CNN is only using his last name to mitigate this risk.

“I just want 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 community during lockdown in Beijing on November 24.

Across China, zero-Covid anger and frustration have reached new heights, leading to rare scenes of protest as local authorities rushed to reimpose restrictions amid record infections – despite a recent government announcement of a limited relaxation of some regulations.

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

In the central city of Zhengzhou this week, workers work at the world’s largest iPhone assembly plant clashed with hazmat-suited security officers over a delay in bonus payment and chaotic Covid regulations.

And on Thursday, in the sprawling metropolis of Chongqing in the southwest, a resident gave a fiery speech criticizes the Covid lockdown at his housing complex. “Without freedom I would rather die!” he shouted to a cheering crowd, who hailed him as a “hero” and wrestled him from the grip of several police officers who had tried to take him away.

These acts of defiance reflected an outpouring of discontent online, particularly from Chinese football fans – many under some form of lockdown or restrictions – who have only been able to watch from home as tens of thousands of raucous fans pack stadiums World Cup in Qatar.

“None of the fans have been 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 zero-Covid insistence that went viral before being censored.

There are signs Chinese officials are feeling the heat from growing public discontent, which came on top of the heavy social and economic tolls imposed by the extended shutdowns.

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

The announcement had raised hopes of a turning point in the direction of reopening, release a rally in Chinese stocks. But a surge in infections as China enters 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 the second straight day exceeded the previous peak recorded in April during Shanghai’s months-long lockdown.

Hazmat-suited Covid workers help delivery drivers drop off goods to residents during lockdown in Beijing on November 24.

Instead of easing controls, many local officials are returning to the zero-tolerance playbook and trying to eradicate 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 tests. It also allowed students to return to schools after a long period of online education. But as cases increased over the weekend, authorities reimposed a lockdown on Monday and asked residents to stay home.

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On Tuesday, the financial center of Shanghai banned anyone arriving in the city from entering places including shopping malls, restaurants, supermarkets and gyms for five days. The authorities also close cultural and entertainment venues in half of the city.

In Guangzhou, officials this week extended the lockdown of the Haizhu district – where the protest took place – for a fifth time and locked down its most populous Baiyun district.

Zhengzhou, home to the Foxconn factory where workers clashed with police, imposed a five-day lockdown of its main urban districts.

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

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

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

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 loosen policy, there will be chaos; but if you tighten up, it will be suffocating.”

Huang said he does not expect any fundamental changes to the zero-Covid policy in the near term. “Because the local authorities’ incentive structure has not been changed. They are still 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 the government’s 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 press conference last week. “They are not an easing (of controls), let alone reopening or ‘lying flat,'” he said.

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

“I don’t want things like this 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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