The family found out the hard way, when Zhou’s father was denied immediate emergency medical help 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 drive Zhou’s father to a hospital just five minutes away. But it was too late to save him.
“The local government killed my dad,” Zhou told CNN in his Beijing home, breaking down in tears. He said he’s received no explanation about why the ambulance took so long to arrive, just a death certificate stating the wrong date of death.
But increasingly, the restrictions — not the virus — are being blamed for heartbreaking deaths that have sparked nationwide outrage on social media.
On the same day Zhou lost his father, a three-year-old boy died of gas poisoning in a locked-down compound in the north-western city of Lanzhou, after he was blocked from being taken promptly to a hospital. Two weeks later, a four-month-old girl died in hotel quarantine in the central city of Zhengzhou after a 12-hour delay in medical care.
Many more families, like Zhou’s, have likely suffered similar tragedies outside the social media spotlight.
Zhou said he contacted several state media outlets in Beijing to report on 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 surname to mitigate that risk.
“I just want to get justice for my dad. Why did you lock us down? Why did you take my dad’s life away?” he said.
And on Thursday, in the sprawling metropolis of Chongqing in the south-west, a resident delivered a searing speech criticising the COVID-19 lockdown on his residential compound.
“Without freedom, I would rather die!” he shouted to a cheering crowd, who hailed him a “hero” and wrestled him from the grip of several police officers who had attempted to take him away.
“None of the fans are seen wearing face masks, or told to submit proof of Covid test results. Are they not living on the same planet as us?” asked a Wechat article questioning China’s insistence on zero-COVID, which went viral before it was censored.
There are signs that Chinese officials are feeling the heat of the growing public discontent, which came on top of the heavy social and economic tolls inflicted by the widening lockdowns.
Earlier this month, the Chinese government released a 20-point guideline to limit the disruption of zero-COVID rules on daily life and the economy. It shortened 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 testing drives and removed a major restriction on international flights.
Instead of relaxing controls, many local officials are reverting to the zero-tolerance playbook, attempting to stamp out infections as soon as they flare up.
Some of the cities that dropped mass testing requirements following the announcement are already tightening other COVID-19 restrictions.
The northern city of Shijiazhuang was among the first to cancel mass testing. It also allowed students to return to schools after a long period of online classes. But as cases rose over the weekend, authorities reimposed a lockdown on Monday, telling residents to stay home.
On Tuesday, financial hub Shanghai banned anyone arriving in the city from entering venues including shopping malls, restaurants, supermarkets and gyms for five days. Authorities also shut down cultural and entertainment venues in half of the city.
In Guangzhou, officials this week extended the lockdown on Haizhu district — where the protest took place — for the 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 on its main urban districts.
In Beijing, streets in its largest district of Chaoyang are largely empty as authorities urge residents to stay home and ordered businesses to shut. Schools across several districts also moved to online classes this week.
Low vaccination rates among China’s elderly have led to fears that a loosening of restrictions could overwhelm the country’s health system. As of November 11, about two-thirds of people age 80 and older had received two doses, and only 40 per cent had received a booster shot.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the re-tightening of Covid controls reflected a typical public policy dilemma in China: “If you relax the policy, there will be chaos; but if you tighten up, it will be stifling.”
Huang said he does not expect any fundamental changes to the zero-COVID policy in the short term.
“Because the local governments’ incentive structure has not been changed. They are still held accountable for the COVID situation in their jurisdiction,” he said.
The subvariants and mutations of COVID-19
For their part, Chinese officials have repeatedly denied that the 20 measures listed in the government guidelines were meant for a pivot to living with the virus.
The measures are about “optimising” existing COVID prevention and control policy, Shen Hongbing, a disease control official, told a news conference last week.
“They are not an easing (of control), let alone reopening or ‘lying flat’,” he said.
Back on the outskirts of Beijing, Zhou said while the zero-COVID policy “is beneficial to the majority”, its implementation at a 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’m furious now.”