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Even as kids’ deaths blamed on COVID restrictions, China responds to soaring cases with more quarantine beds

Beijing — Just weeks after authorities apologized for the death of a three-year-old boy in the western city of Lanzhou, who couldn’t get emergency medical help in time because his neighborhood was one of many under coronavirus lockdowns, a similar tragedy has rekindled anger over China’s draconian “zero-COVID” policy.

A four-year-old girl who was suffering with vomiting and diarrhea in a hotel room where she and her father were under mandatory quarantine this week in Zhengzhou, central China, died after failing to get an ambulance in time, according to Chinese media. The reports said her father waited 11 hours for help after the emergency services dragged their heels in dealing with his case, and when they finally came, she was transported to a hospital 60 miles away.

Local health authorities said they were investigating the incident, which came just days after China revealed some adjustments to its strict anti-COVID measures aimed largely at luring business back to the country. The zero-COVID policy remains very much in place, however, with its stated aim being to quickly identify people who have contracted the virus and their close contacts, and immediately isolate them.

The changes to the policy include a clause stating that people in quarantine zones should not be blocked from access to emergency medical care.

While the latest case has drawn anger, reaction on China’s tightly controlled social media platforms appeared divided. One widely-shared post on the Twitter-like platform Weibo argued that without the zero-COVID policy, the hospital would be flooded with patients and more people would suffer. 

But other users disagreed, with one noting that while testing positive for COVID generally does not mean a death sentence, withholding medical help for a sick child can — and in at least two cases now, did — lead to deaths.

While the Chinese hashtag for “girl refused medical help died” had been read 180 million times, it was not showing up in the “trending” column on the platform, one user noted, suggesting possible efforts by the government to bury the discussion.

Guangzhou Continues Epidemic Prevention Efforts
A barricade blocks off the controlled management area to contain the COVID-19 epidemic, November 14, 2022 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China.VCG/VCG/GETTY

Despite the harsh measures, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases soared to 23,132 as of Thursday, doubling in less than a week to the highest national caseload China has reported in seven months. 

Chinese authorities’ response to the rising cases appears to be even more quarantine beds.

Authorities in the city of Guangzhou announced plans on Thursday to build more quarantine facilities with almost 250,000 additional beds in a bid to stem the surge in cases there. The national health commission has broadly backed regional plans to increase quarantine capacities.

Residents have been losing their patience in the sprawling city, parts of which have been under piecemeal lockdowns since early November. Earlier this week, unconfirmed videos on social media appeared to show angry crowds pushing down fences that were confining localized areas in Guangzhou. Fencing off neighborhoods has been a common practice in China since the beginning of the pandemic in areas deemed “risky” for the spread of the virus.

News stories noting that not a single one of the more than 30,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Guangzhou has been severe have gone viral, leading people to question the necessity of the mandatory quarantines. One comment under an article on the theme reads: “The virus is not scary but stupidity is.”

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