By Simone McCarthy
What was meant to be a simple errand, a daughter driving her aging father to the hospital to pick up his medicine, has pulled a small city on China’s border with North Korea — and its nearly two-month Covid-19 lockdown — into the national spotlight, after the pair ran afoul of pandemic rules.
Video of the scene — whose related hashtag has been viewed over a billion times on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo — shows a confrontation between the driver, identified by police as a 41-year-old woman surnamed Hao, her father and a local police officer, who stopped Hao at a security checkpoint because she did not have proper clearance.
In the video, shot in the northeastern city of Dandong, Hao has gotten out of her car and can be heard yelling — with palpable angst — that she already took a Covid-19 test, and that her housing community gave her permission to leave to go the hospital to pick up the medicine.
The police officer blocks her from re-entering the car and pushes her. She then falls to the ground and her father, aged 70, slaps the officer in the face.
Later in the video, the officer can be seen forcibly dragging Hao out of her car to the ground.
Hao’s apparent transgression? Her health code was not green, but yellow — a status that meant she was not cleared to travel within the city under local rules that rely on the codes, now ubiquitous in China, to control who can move where.
In a statement Wednesday, a day after the incident, local police said they had issued Hao a 10-day administrative detention for obstructing their work, while her father had received a “criminal compulsory measure” — that could result in further charges, according to state media — on suspicion of assaulting a police officer.
The two “broke through checkpoints” and were stopped “according to the law,” the police statement said, adding that Hao had “refused to cooperate and abide by the epidemic prevention regulations.”
In a separate statement the following day, the police said the results from Hao’s test were not yet available, which is why her code was still yellow, and that her father had not taken the required test, according to state-run China News Weekly.
Hao also responded publicly after the incident, explaining in a widely shared social media video that she was driving to pick up a difficult-to-find medicine for her father, who was recovering from surgery and suffered from a form of neuralgia.
“With this kind of pain, he can’t eat, he can’t talk, he can’t sleep,” she said. “Who said a yellow code can’t pass? If that’s the case sick people can only wait there and die?”
CNN reached out but was unable to make contact with Hao.
But as video of the situation circulated in the following days, the police response struck a nerve with the Chinese public, many of whom are growing increasingly frustrated with the stringent rules that now dictate their freedom of movement amid the country’s adherence to a “zero-Covid” strategy, in which eradicating infection is the top priority.
“This wave of public opinion has already risen, and normal people would for sure support the father and daughter,” one user wrote on Weibo, in a comment that received tens of thousands of likes.
“If you don’t allow the father and daughter to go out, you should help them solve the problem. If you can help them, they will not go out then. The policeman knew that they were going to get medicine. Why can’t the police help them get medicines? Epidemic prevention is to serve and protect the people, not a reason to stop the people,” the comment read.
Outside the public eye
The incident follows countless reports of people being unable to access proper or timely medical care due to heavy Covid-19 restrictions.
Those issues and frustrations with China’s Covid-19 regulations have been most visible in Shanghai, where an earlier, two-month lockdown of 25 million people sparked small-scale protests and became a symbol of the lengths China’s Communist Party will go to enforce its zero-Covid goal.
But the incident in Dandong last week has brought into focus the situation in smaller cities, particularly those near China’s land borders. Such places often suffer more stringent measures as authorities fear they could be an entry point for imported virus cases, but may not be in the public eye.
Ruili, a city of some 200,000 in Yunnan province on the border with Myanmar, has undergone intermittent lockdowns since the pandemic began.
“In a place like Shanghai, you hear stories that show the rise in social discontent, the rise in socioeconomic cost, but in smaller cities like (Ruili) and Dandong, you won’t get a sense of what’s going on until such stories become headlines on social media,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
In Dandong, which is separated from North Korea by the Yalu River, a string of outbreaks since late April has pushed authorities to keep the city of 2.2 million largely under strict lockdown.
A brief and limited easing in mid-May was swiftly replaced by a new round of lockdown days later.
That’s left Dandong isolated from the rest of the country, with flights and trains suspended for months, according to state media.
And fears of the virus spreading from across the border after North Korea reported a major outbreak last month also had officials calling on residents living near the river to keep their windows closed on windy days and not to touch the water — measures with little connection to scientific norms around Covid-19 prevention.
Since May 24, Dandong has seen 249 confirmed cases in its central urban area, authorities said Friday. China does not include asymptomatic cases in its confirmed case counts.
On the heels of the uproar over the situation between Hao, her father and the police, Dandong on Thursday announced an easing of certain restrictions in the city — essentially removing obstacles on movement within the city for residents in areas not under special control.
But even with the easing, heavy restrictions remain. People can only leave the city under “special circumstances,” and residents who can move freely still need a negative Covid-19 test taken within 48 hours. Schools remain online and public transport has not reopened, according to the government announcement.
At a press conference on Friday, city mayor Hao Jianjun said he was “soberly aware” of a gap between the city’s epidemic prevention measures and residents’ expectations.
“The initiatives we’re taking are not precise enough, and the fatigue of running operations for a long time has caused some workers to tire and become lax and their methods are simple and crude,” he said, pledging to take into account residents’ opinions.
The easing in Dandong came as Shanghai’s top official on Saturday declared that the city has “won the battle” against Covid-19 after the city reported zero local infections for the first time since February 23. Starting Wednesday, dine-in services would be reinstated in low-risk areas, roughly four weeks after the city’s lockdown was lifted.
But even as cities tentatively lift some measures, it’s clear that stringent testing requirements and health code checks are here to stay across the country for as long as the zero-Covid policy remains.
For the daughter in Dandong, Hao, who would not serve her 10-day detention currently due to the pandemic, according to state media, there remained a human side to be acknowledged amid the restrictions.
“Maybe you also have a sick family member, a child, or a senior at home. You might have encountered the same issue as I did when you were trying to seek medical help,” she said in her online statement.
“People without empathy cannot understand what you felt at that time.”
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CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed to this report.