'Absurd' coronavirus control measures expose complexity of rural management
Published: Jan 20, 2021 10:21 PM

A video circulating on social media shows three anti-epidemic workers wearing red jackets in a village of Shijiazhang, North China's Hebei Province, tying an old man to a tree while another worker scolded him.

Officials tied a man to a tree during a COVID-19 lockdown; villagers got slapped when playing mahjong when coronavirus was still rife … incidents that occurred in Chinese rural areas' epidemic prevention efforts have stirred a firestorm of online criticism, with many denouncing such moves as simple and crude.

Chinese sociologists said that these "absurd" incidents showed the complexities and loopholes of rural areas' management of the epidemic, and they urged local officials to use humane means while adopting strict measures to curb viral transmission.

Recently, a video showing a village official in Gaocheng district in Shijiazhuang, North China's Hebei Province tying an elderly villager to a tree after he insisted on going out to buy cigarettes during a lockdown, has ignited outrage on Chinese social media. 

The district government issued a notice on Wednesday, saying that the official has been suspended from his post, and the public security organ started to look into the incident. 

Similar cases occurred in China in the early stages of the epidemic last year, when village officials were overstretched in trying to stop social activities, including tying a villager who refused to wear a mask to a pillar and slapping people for playing mahjong together.

Rural areas have their own complexity and loopholes in regard to epidemic management. For example, people in rural areas are prone to gregarious lifestyles, and they are more negligent about hygiene, said Zhang Yiwu, a professor at Peking University. 

Zhang said villagers are less sensitive to traditional preaching about epidemic control measures, which have driven local officials to exert more direct measures to regulate those groups. Sometimes, the measures went just too far.

Yu Ao, a resident in a village in Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, told the Global Times that his 80-year-old grandfather would turn a deaf ear to his repeated advice against going out without a mask. 

"Yet when he saw the eye-catching banner in the village saying that 'No gathering for a feast, so you can eat in the future; No visiting others, so you still have relatives in the future,' he went out less, because it spoke in his own language," Yu said.

The recent flare-up of the coronavirus in North China's Hebei Province has exposed loopholes in rural areas' management of the epidemic. 

Although China has invested heavily in promoting nucleic acid testing capabilities at county-level hospitals, interviews with villagers showed that local doctors lack the ability to identify the virus. Also, the awareness of wearing masks and reporting cases of fever was low, and some villagers still favored intravenous therapy that could lead to cross-infections.  

This will certainly add pressure on grassroots village officials, said Professor Zhang, adding that the situation is a test of those officials' ability.

"Officials have to adopt measures that are more acceptable to villagers, while paying special attention to not going so far as to violate their rights or be rude," said Zhang, urged grassroots officials to find a balance between effective, strict measures, and a humane approach in handling the epidemic.