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China is fighting its biggest Covid-19 outbreak since the early days of the pandemic, with discontent spreading on social media after one university cluster left students reportedly without access to bathrooms or drinking water.
The country reported 1,100 new locally-transmitted cases on Thursday – which, though nowhere near the level seen in other nations, is considered high by China’s standards. It marked the highest daily total since the virus emerged in Wuhan in 2020, prompting alarm among local and national leaders.
Throughout the pandemic, China has adhered to a strict zero-Covid policy that aims to stamp out all outbreaks and chains of transmission using a combination of border controls, mass testing, quarantine procedures and lockdowns.
Authorities fell back on these familiar tactics as cases began surging around the country last week, imposing targeted lockdowns for residents in high-risk areas and mandatory quarantine for close contacts.
In Shanghai, where infections are rising, the city government converted several apartments into centralized quarantine centers, forcing tenants to clear out all their belongings, according to several government notices seen by CNN.
Snap lockdowns have also trapped a growing number of residents, office workers and schoolchildren with little advance notice, keeping them in their workplaces or schools until everybody inside tests negative, according to local residents.
But more than two years into the pandemic, public patience with these measures – especially when executed at speed and with little consideration for the human impact – appears to be fraying.
At the Jilin Agricultural Science and Technology University in northeastern Jilin province, students took to social media to plead for help, saying they had been left to fend for themselves after a cluster was detected on campus.
In one widely-shared post on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo, a user claiming to be a student at the university complained that infected students had been isolated in libraries and academic buildings, “all breaking down and crying.”
“Many students in my dormitory had fever, but counselors just gave us fever reducers and told us to sleep with a warm quilt,” the user wrote on Thursday. “There is a serious shortage of daily necessities. Girls have no sanitary pads. Students are bleeding and hurting, crying and calling their families.”
CNN has reached out to the university through its official Weibo account for comment. The school’s official website, and any additional contact information, has been taken offline as of Friday.
The Weibo user added that students isolated in their dormitories found “their doors were sealed off and they can’t even go to the dormitory’s public toilet.” When the students tried to call the government’s Covid-19 control center, phone operators “refused to answer our questions,” he said.
Many of the students were transferred to a separate quarantine facility on Thursday, with 30 buses deployed to take them from campus, the state-run Global Times reported.
The Weibo post went viral, with more than 2.6 million likes and 410,000 shares. Public outrage flooded the internet, with users calling for accountability from local officials. A related hashtag garnered more than 1.88 billion views on Weibo, according to the Global Times.
“From the school to the prevention and control institutions to the Jilin city government – if there was one person who had the courage to assume responsibility, it would not have developed to the present situation,” one Weibo post read.
Later that day, the city government said the secretary of the school’s Chinese Communist Party committee had been removed from the position for negligence.
The current outbreak has spread to several dozen cities in 20 provinces, according to the National Health Commission. The biggest hotspots are Jilin and eastern Shandong province, while cases have also been reported in the capital, Beijing, as well as Shanghai.
The capital of Jilin province, Changchun, issued a city-wide lockdown on Friday, forbidding all 9 million residents from leaving their neighborhoods. Each household is only allowed to send one person to buy groceries every other day.
As the Jilin university cluster began to spread, Jilin city closed schools and entertainment spaces. Similar closures were imposed for all schools in the city of Qingdao, home to 10 million people in Shandong province, and Shanghai.
Several cities are fighting the highly transmissible Omicron variant, according to local health authorities.
In Qingdao’s Laixi area, students make up more than a quarter of the 776 cases confirmed since March 4. Authorities say the cluster has since spread to other provinces – leading to 17 officials from Laixi being punished Thursday for allowing “loopholes” and alleged negligence.
China’s zero-Covid strategy has put local governments under huge pressure to keep the virus at bay, and a slew of officials have been punished during previous rounds of local outbreaks.
As public frustration and sympathy for the students mounted, state media acknowledged that some sectors were showing “a certain level of fatigue toward the dynamic zero-Covid strategy, which could affect the outcome of the implementation of the current policy.”
Some Chinese leaders and scientists have also hinted that China could move away from the strategy. Zero-Covid “will not remain unchanged forever,” wrote Zeng Guang, the chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, on Weibo last week.
But that transition will not happen anytime soon, with experts urging caution amid the surging cases, and warning new variants could still arise. “There is no need to open the door at the peak of the global epidemic,” Zeng said.