China deletes reports of 14-year-old girl's death in COVID quarantine facility in Ruzhou

Beijing — Chinese censors on Friday scrubbed from the internet reports that a teenager had died in a quarantine facility after the case sparked anger and prompted citizens to question the country’s “zero-COVID” policy. China is the last major country committed to a zero-tolerance anti-coronavirus strategy, responding to dozens of outbreaks with lockdowns and sending entire neighborhoods out to makeshift quarantine facilities.

The public has chafed against virus restrictions, sometimes responding to fresh lockdowns with protests, while scuffles have broken out between citizens and officials.

Posts circulated on Chinese social media this week saying a 14-year-old girl had died in the central city of Ruzhou after falling ill in a quarantine facility and being denied prompt medical care.

A screengrab from a video posted on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, in mid-October 2022, shows an unidentified man next to a 14-year-old girl who was said to have died after her family’s pleas for medical attention went unheeded at a COVID-19 quarantine facility in Ruzhou, central China.

The reports caused renewed anger at a sensitive time for the country’s rulers. China‘s political elite are holding a key Communist Party meeting in Beijing this week, expected to secure a historic third term for President Xi Jinping, with the country’s propaganda and security apparatus on high alert for any source of instability.

Unverified videos on the Chinese version of TikTok appeared to show a person lying in a bunk bed suffering seizures, while others in the room screamed for help.

“At the start the kid was fine… then she went (into quarantine) for four days and had a high fever and now she’s gone,” a woman described in other videos as the child’s aunt tells viewers, crying.

The woman says the girl “had convulsions, vomiting and a high fever, and didn’t get medical attention in time,” complaining that local health authorities did not respond to calls while the child was in critical condition.

AFP could not independently verify the videos, and calls to Ruzhou city’s propaganda, health and COVID prevention departments on Friday were not answered.

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Chinese media, which have given cursory attention to similar lockdown-related scandals in the past, were noticeably silent this week on the Ruzhou case.

By Friday afternoon, censors had removed nearly all traces of the incident from the Chinese internet, disabling Weibo hashtags for “Ruzhou Girl” and “Girl from Ruzhou dies in quarantine,” and removing most of the videos mentioning the girl’s alleged death.

The hashtag page for “Ruzhou Girl” had recorded 255,000 views and 158 posts on Friday morning, according to the official statistics at the top of the page, though only four posts remained visible before the page was blocked completely later in the day.

The quarantine facility at the Shanghai New International Expo Center in eastern China is seen in an April 1, 2022 file photo. There are dozens of COVID-19 quarantine facilities around China, where people infected with the virus, suspected of possible infection, or merely suspected of contact with possible cases are brought by authorities as part of the country’s draconian “zero-COVID” policy.  

Ding Ting/Xinhua/Getty

“Have the lessons of Shanghai been forgotten so completely?” one of the last remaining posts on the page asked, referring to the megacity’s lockdown in the spring that left people without adequate food and supplies.

The poster demanded to know why “there wasn’t even a doctor to care for a girl who needed to see one.”

The incident comes a month after 27 people died in a traffic accident while they were being ferried before dawn to a quarantine facility in rural Guizhou province.

And in the lead-up to the Congress, censors removed virtually all references to reports of a rare protest in Beijing, that involved banners denouncing President Xi, as well as the COVID policies.

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