A local official in central China has faced a backlash after threatening detentions for travellers who would normally face quarantine, accusing some of “maliciously” returning home for Lunar New Year.
Widely shared video footage of Dong Hong, mayor of Dancheng county in Henan province, showed him saying at a meeting that “anyone returning home from medium or high-risk areas will be quarantined and then detained”.
Neighbourhoods in China reporting local cases are marked as medium or high-risk areas so that targeted Covid-19 restrictions can be applied.
Previously, local media reported that a villager from Dong’s county was detained for returning from a medium-risk area in Shanghai without having a Covid-19 test or updating his travel history with the authorities.
Dong told media outlet Shangyou News that his comments were well intentioned. He said he had heard of people insisting on returning home from high-risk areas, and that “even the death penalty can’t stop those people from returning”.
“That’s why I said during a meeting that those who do not obey local prevention policies and maliciously return home will be quarantined and detained,” he said. “I only meant to ensure public safety.”
After a backlash spread online on Thursday, Dong’s remarks prompted a reaction from state outlets.
In a social media post on Friday, Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily criticised the county’s policy, saying it lacked legal basis and understanding. Pandemic prevention needed to be scientific and accurate, and people’s desire to visit family should be respected, it said.
On Sunday, a social media post by state news agency Xinhua said trips to hometowns were justified and in no way malicious.
State broadcaster CCTV said in a commentary on Friday that such incidents showed that local governments were afraid of making a mistake and taking responsibility for it, causing them to follow one-size-fits-all policies.
“What does ‘maliciously return home’ even mean?” it said. “What’s the standard, who makes the call and what’s the legal basis for quarantine and detention?”
There have been outbreaks of the Delta and Omicron variants in several cities this month, including in Henan and the capital Beijing. The authorities are taking strict measures to contain the spread of infections, including limits on travel, with only days to go until the Lunar New Year and the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games .
However, as the holidays neared, public disgruntlement about one-size-fits-all policies has grown. Some have complained on social media about travel policies differing from town to town, with some requiring even those from low-risk areas to quarantine for 14 days.
China has punished officials in various cities for mismanagement during the pandemic. Last month, 26 officials from Xian were disciplined for a lax response and mismanagement of a quarantine hotel blamed for a Covid-19 outbreak that prompted a lockdown of the city’s 13 million residents.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.