Translation: “Why Is It So Hard To Craft a Humane Pandemic Policy?” 

When Mr He, his wife and two young children left their home on Hainan Island to buy groceries and charge their electric vehicle in early August, they never imagined they would spend three days and nights stranded in their car, stuck at a highway checkpoint a few hundred meters from their home. Despite their careful planning and compliance with local regulations for COVID-19 testing and travel permits, the family was caught in a complex web of overlapping and contradictory COVID-19 prevention measures. Appeals to local officials fell on deaf ears, and more than 200 phone calls to various pandemic prevention and control departments only resulted in the family’s case being pushed from one bureaucratic department to another, none of they willing or able to accept full responsibility. It was only after a series of social media and online reports drew attention to the family’s plight that they were finally able to return home.

Bureaucratic shenanigans, money-grubbing and over-pandemic politics have resulted in citizens being stranded or placed in dangerous situations during the COVID pandemic. During the same confinement, Mr. He and his family let down 80,000 visiting tourists were stranded in Hainan, confined to their hotel rooms and unable to book flights off the island. CDT has covered a number of hard-hitting cases across China throughout the pandemic: a migrant worker who lived for a while a public telephone booth; recovered COVID patients become homeless for employment discrimination, i long-haul truckers who became “road refugees” after several localities decided to close motorways, entrances, exits and toll service areas. Trapped in the cabs of their trucks without food, water, toilets or showers, the truckers were forced to ask for supplies and improvise to cover their bathroom and hygiene needs.

In this piece that appeared in Sohu News ‘Radian’, author Linghuqing asks the vital question: “Why is it so difficult to craft a humane pandemic policy?

According to media reports on August 9, a Mr. He and his family from Lingshui Lizu Autonomous County, Hainan, got stuck on an expressway after leaving home to go shopping and recharge their electric vehicle. Before attempting to return home, they had driven to four different cities to meet local requirements for “three consecutive days of negative COVID-19 tests.” Although the municipal government had issued the family a permit to travel outside their community, they did not have a separate travel permit for their car and were therefore unable to return to their home, even though it was a few hundred meters away. from the highway exit. At the time of media reports, they had been stuck on the highway for three days and nights.

During this time, Mr. He and his wife made more than two hundred phone calls to various departments of pandemic prevention and control. Township officials told them that blocking the freeway was the responsibility of the traffic police; the traffic police told them they needed approval from the department of pandemic prevention and control; and the pandemic prevention and control department returned the case to the municipal government. City government officials then issued a travel permit for the two adults, but were unable to produce one for the car. This vicious bureaucratic cycle created an impasse that left the family stranded.

At first glance, all pandemic prevention units appeared to be doing their best, but since no department “on the ground” had the final say on the matter, they had to turn to senior officials and coordinate with several pandemic prevention units, none had done so. the courage to accept responsibility for the problem. While the family was stuck at the freeway exit, Mr. He met with officials in charge of the checkpoint inspection on two separate occasions. They indicated the telephone number of Mr. He and they promised to coordinate the matter, but never got back in touch, leaving the family to their own devices.

An empty four-lane expressway stretches across a body of water in Sanya, the provincial capital of Hainan.

Traffic restricted on a highway that runs through Sanya, the provincial capital of Hainan. [Photo from 人民视觉,]

Mr. He and his family only intended to be away for a short time, so they hadn’t brought any travel gear. During the several days they were stuck on the highway, the family did not have adequate clothing and food. When his 10-year-old son got hungry, the gentleman had to ask the traffic police for a lunchbox that the boy and his four-year-old sister could share. And since they didn’t have a change of clothes, they had to keep wearing the same wet and smelly clothes. An even bigger challenge was that sooner or later they would have to recharge their electric car’s battery; otherwise, they would have no way of driving to accomplish the “three consecutive days of negative COVID-19 tests.”

Most people would assume that since the house of Mr. He was only a few hundred meters from the freeway exit, and since the family had already obtained the required negative COVID-19 test certificate, neighborhood officials would surely have allowed them to return, and perhaps the quarantine . at home if necessary, instead of being left helpless while the whole family remained stuck in their car. The family of Mr. He did his best to cooperate with pandemic prevention policy, but clearly even his best efforts were no match for this patchwork of complicated and unpredictable pandemic prevention measures.

It would not be unreasonable to say that the family of Mr. They were victims of a byzantine and inhumane pandemic policy. If it hadn’t been for complicated layers of bureaucracy, the family could have returned to their neighborhood; If pandemic prevention measures had been more humane, the family would not have been forced to fend for themselves, drifting on a freeway with two small children in tow. As difficult as the pandemic situation is, if there had been a set of scientific guidelines for managing pandemics, this particular case could have been handled much more effectively.

Judging from the plight of Mr. He and his family, it is clear that after the “static management” order was issued to the entire region, the pandemic prevention authorities of Lingshui County did not have a plan to contingency to deal with such exceptional cases. And when pandemic prevention measures tightened even more, the family of Mr. He bore the brunt of these excessive measures. It should be noted that the family of Mr. I have complied with the COVID-19 testing rules, notified the authorities as required and acted in accordance with all rules and regulations. Sir, I wasn’t looking to take shortcuts or cut corners, I was just looking for a way home.

Bird's-eye view of two lines of people maintaining social distancing while waiting for COVID tests in Qionghai, Hainan.

Residents of Qionghai, Hainan line up for nucleic acid COVID tests. [Photo from 人民视觉,]

Considering that Mr. He had already informed the municipal government that they were arriving by highway, it should have been obvious that the family had a car. Requiring an additional travel permit for the vehicle at the time was akin to deliberately making things difficult for the family. If the goal was really to prevent the spread of the virus, the family already had three consecutive days of negative test results. In this situation, keeping the whole family stranded a few hundred meters from home had very little to do with genuine efforts to control the spread of the virus and more to do with inflexible and harsh pandemic policy.

The mental and physical torment Mr. He’s family endured while stuck on the expressway could be seen as a kind of covert punishment for daring to venture outside their neighborhood during a city-wide pandemic lockdown. But the problem is that when a policy change occurs suddenly and without warning, as in this case, who can guarantee that everyone will be in a position to comply immediately? Because the pandemic policy affects everyone, special cases must be considered. Accumulate all the repercussions of this policy on the family of Mr. He is emblematic of a negligent government.

Mr. He rejected a neighbor’s suggestion that the family sneak home by taking a path that cut through the fields. This neighborly compassion is moving, especially in contrast to impersonal and inhumane pandemic prevention measures. However, after media reports of the family stranded on the highway drew attention to the case, there is now hope that some of Lingshui’s excessive pandemic prevention measures will be changed. But if a change for the better must come at such a high cost to the people involved, how can we expect this lesson to apply more widely? [Chinese]

Translation by Liddy L.

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