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Earthquake in China’s Sichuan leads to outcry over covid lockdown

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, rescuers transfer survivors across a river following the Sept. 5 earthquake in rural Luding County, in China's Sichuan province. (Cheng Xueli/AP)

BEIJING — An earthquake in southwestern China killed at least 65 people this week and sparked criticism about orders for residents to remain in coronavirus lockdown instead of fleeing to safety.

The 6.8-magnitude earthquake is the latest challenge for Sichuan province, which has been beset this year by floods, drought, power shortages and onerous pandemic controls. The quake, whose epicenter was in rural Luding County, has also prompted outcry about authorities’ continued prioritization of coronavirus prevention over other emergencies.

On Monday, a screenshot of a chat group was widely shared on social media, in which residents in the city of Chengdu were ordered by their building manager to stay in their apartments through the earthquake.

“Everyone, you may not go down the stairs!!” the building manager wrote. “You may not run!!!!”

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The screenshot and other similar reports triggered a flood of public criticism, even drawing attention in state media. The official People’s Daily newspaper’s health news platform said that one of its reporters had called the building manager involved in the Chengdu incident, who said that, “No matter how severe the earthquake is, it can’t be that severe. It’s safest to stay at home.”

Stung by the nationwide backlash, a person claiming to be that building manager later posted online saying the earthquake was already over when he or she told residents not to run, and it was just a joke.

Chengdu’s health commission responded to the controversy Monday night, saying that people’s lives and safety should be prioritized in the case of earthquakes, fires and floods, over pandemic rules.

China’s President, Xi Jinping, gave orders on Monday for rescue efforts to be given top priority in Sichuan. State media reported that more than 50,000 people had been relocated as of Tuesday morning, with more than 1,900 police officers and soldiers dispatched to the scene.

Most of the deaths took place in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, an area of Sichuan province encompassing Luding County, where most of the population is ethnic Tibetan. Some of the worst damage occurred in small towns, where buildings were leveled and roads rendered impassible by rubble.

The local branch of state-owned electric company State Grid reported it had restored power to 20,000 households overnight. Several hundred people remained trapped on an expressway Tuesday morning.

One video in Chengdu showed a crowd of residents at the gate of their apartment complex, arguing to be let out. Employees on the other side refused to open it, with one yelling through a speakerphone that the buildings hadn’t collapsed. In another video, a man shakes the handle of a locked door, as he and other residents tried to leave their apartment building.

China’s southwest is often hit by earthquakes. In 2008, tens of thousands were killed when a powerful quake struck Sichuan province. In the aftermath, residents in the affected areas complained of an inadequate official response.

There have been safety concerns surrounding China’s inflexible coronavirus lockdowns since the earliest days of the pandemic, when residents of Wuhan were confined to their homes for more than two months. Videos circulated of Wuhan pandemic staffers welding shut doors in apartment buildings, raising alarms over what could happen in the case of a fire or other emergency.

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At the national level, Chinese officials have been seeking to ease some pandemic restrictions in recent months, as the economy shows signs of distress. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has begun appearing in photo-op meetings with local officials and the public without a mask, in a symbol of a return to normal life. State media has encouraged families to travel for holidays over the summer.

But Beijing ordered fresh controls after a surge of cases, with tens of millions across the country currently under lockdown. Most residents in Shenzhen, the southern high-tech capital, were ordered to stay at home last weekend. Parts of business metropolis Guangzhou, the Tibetan regional capital Lhasa, and southwestern city Guizhou remain under lockdown.

Chengdu began its lockdown Thursday evening, telling residents to stay at home through Sunday, with just one member of a household allowed to venture out each day to buy groceries. Authorities said Monday the lockdown would continue at least through Wednesday, as new cases continued to emerge.

Officials nationwide have been on edge ahead of a crucial Chinese Communist Party congress next month, where Xi is expected to break precedent by staying on for a third five-year term. Pandemic restrictions, and other social controls more broadly, are expected to remain tight until after the meeting. Xi has declared the nation will continue its “zero covid” policy to control all outbreaks with lockdowns for the foreseeable future.

Across much of China, residents are still required to take coronavirus tests every three days or so, and to log their daily movements in an app to aid contact tracing.

Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.