Public apologies from government officials in China for mishandled duties are extraordinarily rare events. After all, career success is largely determined by their supervisors, not by the people they serve. But since the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across China, public admissions of failures have become more frequent. From food shortages to denied hospital access for sick people or pregnant women during lockdowns , from the eastern financial hub of Shanghai to Lhasa in Tibet, several local government officials have claimed deep remorse for their blunders. In the latest case, officials from the Guiyang municipal government bowed to say sorry for the deaths of 27 people on a bus that had been making an early morning journey to a remote quarantine facility. The bus transferring people from Guiyang, the capital of the southwestern province of Guizhou, to a quarantine centre, crashed on Sunday. In addition to the dead, 20 other people were injured. The disaster happened at around 2.40am as the bus was heading to Libo, a mountainous county about 260km (160 miles) from the city. To prevent driver fatigue, Chinese traffic laws prohibit most coaches from being on highways between 2am and 5am. The loss of life and apparent disregard for laws and regulations sparked widespread outrage on the internet, setting off a renewed reflection on the country’s zero-tolerance Covid-19 policies. “The Guiyang accident is not an isolated case. A lot of irregularities exist in Covid-19 control measures of many cities,” wrote Nie Riming, a researcher with the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law, in his column on Baidu on Sunday. “Covid-19 curbs should not break the boundaries of law and impact orders and disciplines of other fields.” The article, like hundreds of other social media comments on the crash in the following days, was later removed by censors over worries about the impact of an outpouring of anger and criticism. The Guiyang government had been following a routine. To stamp out coronavirus flare-ups, local governments usually transfer people to isolation facilities in suburbs or outside their cities at night. Authorities have said the practice makes isolation more thorough and helps cut the transmission chain. The procedure also helps to achieve “social clearance”, meaning that any new infections will only be discovered among people already in isolation. An unverified leaked document appeared to show that Guizhou authorities had set a target to achieve “social clearance” by September 19 – less than a month before the Communist Party’s 20th national congress . Guiyang has reported more than 560 Covid-19 infections this month, most of them asymptomatic. Human cost of China’s zero-Covid policy measured in stress, anxiety Various districts are under different levels of restrictions . On September 8, government officials apologised after a snap lockdown and delayed food deliveries left hundreds of thousands of residents without food. Similar breakdowns have been reported in many other mainland cities, as lockdowns have led to food and medical shortages, separation of parents from children and mental health crises. In Shanghai, photos and videos circulating online showed steel barriers welded together in some residential compounds to prevent people from leaving their homes when that city was under lockdown. And online posts showed people in Chengdu being barred from leaving their residential areas , even as the southwestern city was rocked by a 6.8-magnitude quake earlier this month. Things had started out on a more promising trajectory. In early 2020, China was lauded by the World Health Organization for its response to contain the coronavirus and prevent the pandemic from spreading further. As of September 19, mainland China’s total fatalities from Covid-19 was relatively low at 5,226, according to official data. By comparison, the United States had logged more than 1 million virus-related deaths. India’s total was at 528,000, however WHO estimates put India’s figure at nearly 10 times that. Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said zero-Covid was launched when Beijing wanted to sustain its success in fighting Covid-19. “The problem is that after more than 2½ years, there has been a significant drop in the severity of the disease, but the draconian policy remains fundamentally unchanged. “It is increasingly unjustifiable in light of the diminishing return problems, as well as the second-order crises and unintended consequences this approach is creating,” Huang said. A more cost-effective approach required significantly increasing the vaccination rate among the elderly, and making effective therapeutic means available to this part of the population, Huang added. Chinese health authorities have cited low vaccination rates among the elderly as a main reason for not shifting to “living with the virus”, adding they were worried about a squeeze on medical resources if infections and severe cases surged. According to the National Health Commission, around 90 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated on the mainland, but the rate among the elderly is relatively low, especially among the most vulnerable – people aged 80 and above. As of July, the rate of fully vaccinated people aged 60 to 69 was 89.1 per cent. The percentage was slightly lower for the 70-79 age group at 87.1 per cent, and significantly lower for people aged 80 and above – only 61 per cent had been fully vaccinated, with just 38.4 per cent having had a booster shot. “With the 20th party congress around the corner, the local governments are more interested in relying on zero-Covid instruments like snap lockdowns than on vaccination in containing the spread of Covid-19,” Huang said. Chen Daoyin, an independent political scientist and a former Shanghai-based professor, said local governments had no choice but to follow the top leadership’s instructions to forcefully contain Covid-19, because it was a “political task”. “Covid-19 control has been politicised. Any administrative decision is subject to political disciplines. Under the system, the central party committee is the decision maker. Local governments are policy enforcers and health experts are cooperators,” Chen said. Is the end to China’s zero-Covid rules in sight? Internet users hope so Since the first Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, Beijing has sacked or reprimanded more than 1,000 officials for failures to control the pandemic, including former Hubei party secretary Jiang Chaoliang and governor Wang Xiaodong. “Far fewer officials were punished for social or economic disorder at the time of lockdown, because it is an administrative problem, less crucial as a political one,” Chen said. On a June visit to Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the coronavirus was first detected, President Xi Jinping said China could not afford to pursue herd immunity or “lie flat” – a reference to living with the virus. He said dynamic zero-Covid was the “most economic and effective” response, and China would continue with it until “the final victory” against the pandemic was won. Xi had previously vowed to fight any attempt to “distort, question and challenge” the country’s zero-Covid policies. “China has made the Covid policy a constituent of the competition between socialist China and capitalist Western countries,” Chen said. “So it’s not surprising to see top leaders themselves wear masks in international occasions while none of their peers take the precaution.” Last week, on his first trip abroad in nearly 1,000 days, Xi was photographed wearing a face mask in most of his meetings with 12 other leaders on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan. On Monday, Vice-President Wang Qishan joined world leaders at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral at Westminster Abbey in London. Dressed in a black Mao suit and wearing a mask, Wang – as Xi’s special envoy – stood out among some 500 mask-free foreign leaders and dignitaries paying tribute to the late monarch. “The leaders were telling the world that China would unswervingly stick to the zero-Covid policy and were convinced it’s a better model to contain the pandemic,” Chen said. “Even when the WHO announces the pandemic is over, it is likely to take China one or two years to exit from the zero-Covid policy.” In an annual position paper released this week, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China said: “China’s move away from the rest of the world – embodied by the restrictions imposed under its Covid-19 policy … indicates that, at the moment, ideology is trumping the economy .” With many Chinese cities still imposing mobility restrictions as of last month, the chamber does not anticipate a full reopening of Chinese borders until the second half of 2023. What Xi’s trip to Kazakhstan could mean for China’s zero-Covid position According to the WHO, the virus has killed nearly 6.5 million people and infected 606 million, roiling global economies and overwhelming health systems. The roll-outs of vaccines and therapies have helped to stem deaths and hospitalisations. The now-dominant Omicron variant of the disease is less severe, and recorded deaths globally from Covid-19 last week were the lowest since March, 2020. “We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic,” WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva on Wednesday. “We’re not there yet, but the end is in sight.” The upbeat outlook fuelled great hopes on China’s social media platforms that China would ease its stringent zero-Covid policy soon. There has been speculation that the policy could be fine-tuned or even changed dramatically after the Communist Party’s national congress next month, a gathering that will set the tone for the next five years. But a research report from Goldman Sachs forecast that it is unlikely to be eased until next March, when the top legislature meets. So far, Chinese authorities have given no signal of any intention to ease the existing policy.