China’s COVID-19 health code system, which strictly governs people’s movements, crashed in Xi’an this week, worsening conditions in the locked-down city where the country’s worst outbreak since Wuhan has been unfolding.
The crash has complicated efforts to weed out cases through mass testing, created hurdles for people seeking care at hospitals and led to the suspension of a top official — the latest among a slew of bureaucrats to be punished as Beijing fumes over the situation.
Liu Jun, head of Xi’an’s big-data bureau, was temporarily dismissed over performance failures, the municipal Communist Party Committee said in a statement. While the committee didn’t explicitly lay out the reason behind its decision, it came after Xi’an’s health code system — which is under Liu’s purview, and tracks individuals’ movements and vaccination status — broke down Tuesday.
The system crash meant locals were unable to access their COVID-19 infection status after Xi’an embarked on a new widespread round of nucleic acid tests, according to a media report.
The provincial government said in a statement later that the system was temporarily paralyzed due to overwhelming traffic, and was being fixed. It had also experienced technical issues in December.
People must show their health codes, which prove they have tested negative for COVID-19, in order to enter hospitals.
According to a video trending on Weibo, a mother lost her baby after waiting more than two hours as a hospital wouldn’t let her in without the health code showing that she was infection-free. The provincial women’s federation said it was looking into the matter.
Similar complaints and criticisms were seen elsewhere on Chinese social media, as patients failed to receive timely treatment at hospitals already overwhelmed by the virus.
With more than 1,700 cases, the virus situation in Xi’an has triggered shortages of food and medical care amid a lockdown that has banned its more than 13 million residents from leaving their homes without a special reason.
The strict measures — some of the toughest in the world — come as Chinese authorities race to curtail the country’s COVID-19 outbreak ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics next month, and have led to increasingly vocal frustration among locals.
China is the only country left practicing a zero-tolerance strategy against the virus, which involves ever-escalating measures to bring infections down to zero.
While the Xi’an outbreak is of the delta variant, the more-transmissible omicron strain now roiling the world will challenge the approach even further. Mainland China has not yet reported any community spread of omicron.
Two other local officials, including the deputy mayor, were removed this week over their handling of the outbreak.
“The Xi’an outbreak is the most severe after the Wuhan lockdown,” Zeng Guang, one of China’s top COVID-19 advisers and former chief scientist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday according to a local newspaper. “We hope Xi’an can create a new experience in containing an outbreak in the short term, after losing control at the very initial stage.”
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