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Aerial photo shows a community testing site for COVID-19 in Wudang District of Guiyang, southwest China's Guizhou province, Sept. 5, 2022. A bus transporting people under quarantine crashed, killing 27 and injuring 20.Yang Ying/The Associated Press

A bus that crashed early Sunday morning in southwestern China, killing 27 people and injuring the 20 others on board, was an official government vehicle transporting people under COVID-19 quarantine, local authorities have confirmed.

The bus overturned on a highway at around 2:40 a.m. between Guiyang – the capital of Guizhou province – and nearby Libo county. After a preliminary investigation, officials said the accident was likely caused by driver fatigue.

Speaking at a news conference late Sunday, Lin Gang, the deputy mayor of Guiyang, bowed deeply and said his administration “sincerely apologizes to the whole society” for the horrific loss of life. He promised a thorough investigation and said officials would “seriously pursue legal responsibilities for relevant parties,” according to state media.

As word of the crash spread Sunday, it sparked fury online, with many people holding it up as an example of the dangers of China’s draconian COVID-19 policies.

While Guizhou has seen a spike in cases recently, with 712 reported Saturday – the highest number in the country – it has only recorded two deaths since the pandemic began.

On social media, locals said the people on the bus had been ordered to a quarantine location after a single case was reported in their building.

One woman, whose mother was among those killed Sunday, blamed pandemic policies for her death. Wu Geng said she spoke to her mother Saturday night and that she had just tested negative.

“I am devastated. I never knew the call last night would be the last time I talked to her,” Ms. Wu wrote on Weibo. “She had not left the house for several days except to take COVID tests, and finally she was taken away for quarantine for no reason and died from that, it’s an ending I cannot accept.”

The crash was among the top trending topics on Weibo Sunday, with many commenting that “all of us are on this bus” and asking when the country’s increasingly hated COVID-19 policies will finally be relaxed. Comments and shares were later disabled on many hashtags related to the incident, and popular posts were deleted.

It is unclear whether the fatalities will be counted as pandemic-related deaths, with some speculating darkly that, if they were, they could be used to justify even stricter control measures, given the 1,200-per-cent increase in fatalities they would represent.

Authorities across China are under intense pressure to control local outbreaks ahead of the Communist Party congress, which begins Oct. 16. President Xi Jinping is expected to secure a historic third leadership term at the meeting, which is held every five years.

Guizhou’s spike in infections accounted for about 70 per cent of new cases nationwide Saturday, and local authorities had said they would need to transport those under quarantine “to sister cities and states” because of limited capacity in Guiyang.

Influential commentator Hu Xijin, a former editor of the state-run Global Times newspaper, wrote on Weibo: “We can imagine how anxious the local authorities are at the moment and how much pressure they are under.”

With files from Alexandra Li and Reuters