The death of a 3-year-old boy following a suspected gas leak at a locked down residential compound in northwestern China has triggered a fresh wave of outrage at the country’s stringent zero-Covid policy.
The boy’s father claimed in a social media post that Covid workers tried to prevent him from leaving their compound in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, to seek treatment for his child – causing a delay that he believes proved fatal.
A social media post by the father on Wednesday about his son’s death was met with an outpouring of public anger and grief, with several related hashtags racking up hundreds of millions of views over the following day on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.
“Three years of pandemic was his entire life,” a popular comment read.
It’s the latest tragedy to have fueled a growing backlash against China’s unrelenting zero-Covid policy, which continues to upend daily life with incessant lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing mandates even as the rest of the world moves on from the pandemic.
Numerous similar cases have involved people dying after being denied prompt access to emergency medical care during lockdowns – despite the insistence of Chinese officials, including leader Xi Jinping, that the country’s Covid policies “put people and their lives first.”
Locked down for a month
Large parts of Lanzhou, including the neighborhood where the boy’s family live, have been locked down since early October.
The boy’s father said his wife and child both fell ill around noon on Tuesday, showing signs of gas poisoning. The mother’s condition improved after receiving CPR from the father, but the boy fell into a coma, according to the man’s social media post.
The father said he made numerous attempts to call both an ambulance and the police but failed to get through. He said he then went to plead for help from Covid workers who were enforcing the lockdown at their compound, but was rejected and told to seek help from officials in his community or keep calling for an ambulance himself.
He said the workers asked him to show a negative Covid test result, but he could not do so as no tests had been carried out at the compound in the previous 10 days.
He grew desperate and eventually carried his son outside, where a “kind-hearted” resident called a taxi to take them to hospital, he wrote.
However, it was too late by the time they arrived and the doctors failed to save his son.
“My child might have been saved if he had been taken to the hospital sooner,” he wrote.
According to online maps, the hospital is just 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) away from the boy’s home – a 10-minute drive.
The father claimed in his social media post that the police did not show up until after he had taken his son to hospital. But the local police said in a statement late on Tuesday that they had immediately rushed to the scene after receiving a call for help from the public, and helped send two people, including the child, to hospital 14 minutes later.
The police statement said the child had died of carbon monoxide poisoning and the mother remained in hospital in a stable condition – but it made no mention of whether lockdown measures had delayed their treatment.
CNN contacted both Lanzhou officials and the boy’s father for comment. The father did not respond.
On Thursday, Lanzhou authorities issued a statement expressing grief for the child’s death and condolences to his family. They vowed to “seriously deal with” officials and work units that had failed to facilitate a timely rescue for the boy.
“We have learned a painful lesson from this incident … and will put people and their lives first in our work in the future,” the statement said.
Demand for answers
The boy’s death also ignited anger from local residents. Videos circulating on social media show residents taking to the streets to demand an answer from authorities.
One shows a woman shouting at officials wrapped head to toe in hazmat suits. “Ask your leader to come here and tell us what happened today,” she shouts. In another, a man chants, “Give me back my freedom!”
Other videos show several buses containing SWAT police officers arriving at the scene.
One shows rows of officers in hazmat suits marching down the street; several others show residents in a standoff with uniformed police officers who are holding shields and wearing helmets and masks.
CNN cannot independently verify the videos, but a resident who lives nearby confirmed to CNN he saw the SWAT team police moving in.
“They shouted ‘one, two, one’ (when they marched down the street) so loudly they could be heard from 500 meters away,” the resident said.
He lamented Lanzhou’s “excessive epidemic prevention and lockdowns” and what he said was increasingly stringent censorship.
“Now, even knowing the truth has become an extravagant hope,” he said. “Who knows how many similar incidents have happened across the country?”
In his social media post, the father said he was approached by someone who claimed to work for a “civil organization” and was offered 100,000 yuan (about $14,000) on the condition that he signed an agreement vowing not to seek accountability from the authorities.
“I didn’t sign it. All I want is an explanation (for my son’s death),” he wrote. “I want (them) to tell me directly, why wouldn’t they let me go at the time?”
The father’s posts on Weibo and Baidu, another online site, recounting the incident both disappeared late on Wednesday night.
CNN’s Mengchen Zhang and Shawn Deng contributed reporting.