BEIJING — A bus that was carrying dozens of people to a quarantine facility crashed over the weekend in southwestern China, killing at least 27 of them and setting off a renewed, anguished debate about the country’s zero-tolerance Covid policies.
The bus was transporting 47 people from the city of Guiyang when it rolled over around 2:40 a.m. on Sunday, about 100 miles southeast of the city, according to the local authorities. In addition to the 27 people killed, the 20 other passengers onboard were injured.
Much of Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province, has been under lockdown since earlier this month, after several hundred coronavirus infections were detected there. Under China’s “zero Covid” policies, just a handful of cases is enough to trigger mass quarantines and testing — an approach that has increasingly worn on many Chinese, as the rest of the world moves toward living with the virus.
On Saturday, the day before the crash, the Guiyang authorities said that they were sending people to other cities to be quarantined, because there were too many of them for the facilities in Guiyang to accommodate.
After the crash, officials did not say why the people on the bus were being quarantined, such as whether they had tested positive for the virus or were contacts of people who had; they said only that the passengers were “epidemic-related.”
As news of the crash emerged, Chinese social media erupted with fierce debate about whether the country’s Covid policies were to blame. Users asked whether the passengers had needed to be transferred at all and why the bus had been on the road so late at night, when Chinese traffic laws prohibit most long-distance passenger vehicles from driving between 2 and 5 a.m. Some said that such a tragedy could have happened to anyone, given the government’s fixation on eliminating cases and ordinary people’s powerlessness to resist it.
And many raised a question that has become a familiar one in China, as lockdowns across the country have led to food and medical shortages, separation of parents from children and mental health crises: Was there any price for “zero Covid” that the government would consider too high? (Guizhou Province has recorded only two deaths from the coronavirus since the pandemic began.)
Nie Riming, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law, wrote in a widely shared online article that the crash was “not an isolated incident.”
“Many cities, while controlling outbreaks, have violated laws and regulations numerous times,” Mr. Nie wrote. “The only difference is that accidents have not yet occurred in other cities.”
Censors removed many angry comments about the crash, as well as the entire accounts of some users who had shared their outrage or grief. In a reflection of how polarizing and politicized the Covid debate in China has become, some social media users struck back at the critics, saying that people who would turn a traffic accident into a political debate must be servants of Western forces.
The Chinese authorities have long been wary of large outpourings of public grief, which have often involved cries for accountability and shaken people’s trust in the government. But officials are on particularly high alert now, with a major Chinese Communist Party congress due next month, at which China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is expected to claim an unprecedented third term.
Local governments have been under intense pressure to contain any outbreaks before that meeting, given Mr. Xi’s personal emphasis on the importance of “zero Covid.” Guizhou had pledged to essentially eliminate cases by Monday.
At a news conference on Sunday night, Guiyang’s deputy mayor said officials were “incomparably remorseful” about the crash and “sincerely apologized to the entire society.” The authorities in Guizhou Province promised an investigation, and three local officials were suspended on Monday. But officials have not given a reason for the crash or whether any traffic laws were violated.
Many social media users dismissed the apology as hollow. “Can an apology replace the law?” He Guangwei, a well-known journalist, wrote on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform.
Guizhou’s lockdown had been riddled by problems even before the crash. The government was forced to apologize on Sept. 8, shortly after the city shut down, after many residents reported food shortages. Officials said Covid restrictions had caused a shortage of delivery workers.
Residents had also complained of unsanitary or shoddy conditions at quarantine facilities, leading the local government to acknowledge that conditions were “uneven.” The Chinese authorities have refused to allow home quarantine.
Late last week, the city’s Communist Party secretary, Hu Zhongxiong, called for residents to be sent to quarantine more quickly, urging same-day transfers. By Saturday afternoon, more than 7,000 people had been sent out of Guiyang, with nearly 3,000 more in the process of being transferred, officials said.
Hours later, at 10 minutes after midnight, the bus departed from Guiyang.
Vivian Wang reported from Beijing and Joy Dong from Hong Kong. Li You and Zixu Wang contributed research.