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According to authorities, the bus was carrying 47 people from Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province, to a remote county 155 miles (249 kilometers) away, when it overturned on a mountainous stretch of highway and rolled into a ditch at around 2:40 a.m.
It is unclear why a quarantine bus would take people on winding mountain roads after midnight. China’s transport regulation prohibits long-distance coaches from operating between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.
A photo widely circulated on social media shows the bus driving at night, with the driver wearing a full hazmat suit that left only his eyes uncovered. Other photos and videos show the bus being towed by a truck, its top crushed, and a hazmat suited worker spraying disinfectant on it. While CNN cannot independently verify the photos and videos, the bus license plate in the image matches the plate number reported by authorities.
Survivors of the crash are now receiving treatment in hospital, according to authorities.
News about the deaths sparked a huge outcry on Chinese social media, with many questioning the increasingly over-the-top implementation of China’s zero-Covid policy, which relies on snap lockdowns, mass testing and extensive quarantining measures to curb outbreaks.
Stringent and prolonged lockdowns have recently sparked outcries in cities ranging from Guiyang, Chengdu to Jinan, as well as the regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.
“What makes you think that you won’t be on that late-night bus one day?” read a viral comment, which garnered more than 250,000 likes before it was censored.
“We’re all on the bus. We just haven’t crashed yet,” another comment said.
Chinese censors rushed to cover the outrage. Many state media postings about the accident have closed the comment section, and search results appeared to be filtered. A related hashtag attracted more than 450 million views as of Sunday evening, but only posts from official government and media accounts were shown.
A Guizhou resident who said her friend was killed on the bus took to Weibo to demand the Guiyang government to be held accountable. Her posts were widely shared, drawing an outpouring of anger and sympathy. The user declined CNN’s interview requests and later hid her posts.
Guizhou officials are under huge pressure to contain even small-scale Covid outbreaks in the lead up to the 20th Party Congress, where Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to secure a norm-breaking third term in power.
Guizhou reported 712 infections for Saturday, accounting for 70% of new cases nationwide. Nine local officials in Guiyang have already been suspended this month for failing to implement Covid policies properly.
On Saturday, Guiyang officials vowed to “fight a decisive battle” to eliminate community transmission. In zero-Covid China, a solution commonly used by local authorities is to bus entire buildings or communities of residents out of the city to quarantine elsewhere.
In Guiyang, which was placed under a lockdown earlier this month, authorities prepared 20 buses and 40 drivers to transport close contacts of Covid cases to other cities, the state-run Guiyang Evening Paper reported. As of Saturday, more than 7,000 people had been transferred, and nearly 3,000 were waiting to be bused out.
According to government data, only two people have died of Covid in Guizhou, a province of 38 million people, since the beginning of the pandemic.