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As the walls of their apartment shook around them, Ken He yelled at his mother to get down, just as her phone pinged with an earthquake alarm.

The tremor lasted about 10 seconds. As it eased, Mr. He went to run for the door. The 23-year-old grabbed for his mother’s hand, but she looked uncertain and asked, “Are we allowed to go outside?”

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A damaged building after an earthquake in China's southwestern Sichuan province on Sept. 6.-/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. He lives in Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, which has been under a tight pandemic lockdown since last week, with some 21 million people confined to their homes. Earthquakes are not uncommon in Sichuan, which sits on a major fault line, but the fear of being fined or otherwise punished if they went outside left many Chengdu residents paralyzed as the city shook once again Monday.

On social media, some frantically asked what they should do, while others shared their outrage at discovering emergency exits blocked or being shouted at by epidemic control workers. One video shared online shows a man admonishing residents through a loudspeaker, asking them, “Did the building fall down?”

Daphne Zhang told the South China Morning Post she didn’t dare leave her apartment, even as shelves and bottles fell to the kitchen floor. Her family is in quarantine at home due to a positive test result, and a siren has been installed on their door. It sounds if they try to leave.

“I thought for a minute whether I should run for it,” she told the paper. She ultimately decided to stay put.

Mr. He and his mother took the risk, joining other residents of their building in the courtyard outside, where some had been queuing up for their daily COVID-19 test when the quake hit.

“Everyone was sitting downstairs, afraid of aftershocks,” Mr. He said. “After half an hour or so, the staff in charge of the building came to persuade us to go home, out of fear of ‘group infection.’”

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Rescue workers head to an earthquake-affected area in Luding county, Ganzi Prefecture, in China's southwestern Sichuan province on Sept. 6.-/AFP/Getty Images

Some residents argued with the building staff, saying it wasn’t safe to be indoors during an earthquake, Mr. He said. But the staff “insisted that there can be no compromise or relaxation of quarantine measures.”

“An entire city’s residents are locked up in their homes, and people have to worry about whether it’s legal to go out in this situation. I just think it’s so inhuman,” he added.

With the epicentre of the quake some 260 kilometres away, Chengdu was rattled but suffered little serious damage. Discussion online quickly turned from sincere concern to dark humour, with residents taking advantage of the situation to complain about China’s COVID-19 policies, criticism of which is usually heavily censored.

Some shared an article posted late last week by the Institute of Disaster Prevention, an arm of the China Earthquake Administration, which explained that yes, it was permissible to go outside – but make sure to wear a mask and practise physical distancing. Chengdu’s Municipal Health and Health Commission later echoed this message, issuing a new guidance that said people can evacuate during a disaster “when conditions permit.”

On Weibo, Hu Xijin, an influential commentator and former editor of the state-run Global Times, reassured his followers that “avoiding an earthquake risk is justified, it shouldn’t be a problem at all.”

“If you feel in danger, and you run outside to survive, that is your natural right,” he said.

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The aftermath of a 6.6-magnitude earthquake in Hailuogou, in China's southwestern Sichuan province.STR/AFP/Getty Images

For some people closer to the epicentre of Monday’s quake, in Luding County, there was no time to escape. As of Tuesday afternoon, at least 65 people had been confirmed killed, with more than 170 injured and 12 still missing, according to provincial authorities. Some 50,000 people have been evacuated so far, and thousands of rescue workers have been deployed to assist with relief efforts.

Images from the scene showed roads covered with debris and buildings leaning dangerously. Electricity and communications were cut to many towns, and some rescues had to be done by hand owing to the difficulty of moving heavy machinery into the area.

Monday’s earthquake is only the latest disaster to hit Sichuan this summer, after heat waves and droughts caused energy shortages across the hydropower-dependent region.

With a file from Alexandra Li

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