As China struggles to stamp out coronavirus, panic is the new infection
Hospitals are being overwhelmed in the ‘doomsday’ city of Wuhan, where the warnings of medical staff are giving the lie to Beijing’s spin
Philip Sherwell, Asia Correspondent
The Sunday Times
Desperate residents and doctors have described “doomsday” scenes at overwhelmed hospitals in the Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak of a deadly new respiratory virus.
The anguished messages emerging today from Wuhan, the city of 11 million that was placed under lockdown by the communist authorities this week, recounted scenes of fear, anger and panic.
Video taken in a hospital showed long queues of masked patients, some slumped on the ground, waiting for treatment, and exhausted staff in tears. At one stage, a doctor shouts, “Don’t you think we want to live?” into a phone from behind his mask to an unidentified caller.
A 36-year-old woman described taking her husband to four hospitals after he came down with a fever and started to cough blood, but all said they had no space to test him. It felt like “doomsday” in the city, she said.
“I have nothing. No protective clothing, only a raincoat, and I am standing outside the hospital in the rain,” she told the South China Morning Post. “I am desperate, I have lost count of time and days.”
The official death toll in China jumped to 41 today, up from 26 just a day earlier, and the fatalities included a doctor infected after treating patients — the first frontline medic killed by the disease.
The number of recorded infections passed 1,400 worldwide, with cases confirmed in Europe by French health authorities, in South Asia by Nepal and in Australia.
But the infected tally of 1,370 in China seems certain to be much higher because hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people suffering pneumonia symptoms associated with the virus have been turned away from hospitals because of lack of beds, supplies and staff, say residents. Some have reportedly died at home.
Even as state media has praised the official response and urged calm, medical staff posted messages on social media saying the situation was much worse than Beijing admitted and that they lacked supplies and protective clothing, with some working with broken goggles.
The messages, which included appeals for donations, and videos were taken down by censors. Hospital staff have been ordered not to discuss the situation amid the efforts by the authorities to play down the extent of the crisis.
Wuhan is the largest of several cities in the central province of Hubei that were locked down by the authorities this week — more than a month after hospitals treated the first patients.
But medical experts said the unprecedented attempt to corral 46 million people would not halt the spread of the disease because so many had travelled before the quarantine operation was put in place. The virus has spread across China and reached 11 countries, including two cases in the US.
“I think we have passed the golden period of control and prevention,” said Guan Yi, a virus expert at Hong Kong University who visited Wuhan and left this week, just before transport connections were cut.
The US has chartered a plane to fly out American citizens and diplomats at its Wuhan consulate tomorrow after receiving a one-off exemption from the lockdown.
The timing of the outbreak — in the run-up to yesterday’s lunar new year when hundreds of millions of journeys are made — could not have been worse. Nor could the location. The country’s seventh-largest city is known as “the thoroughfare of China” because of its role as the economic, political and transport hub for the vast central region.
The wildlife market where the first victims are believed to have been infected by diseased animals is within walking distance of the high-speed railway station from where trains leave for Hong Kong and cities across China.
The authorities initially suppressed talk of a crisis, censoring online forums where the alarm was raised, and said there was no evidence that the virus could be spread by humans.
Their actions echoed Beijing’s attempts to cover up the Sars crisis in 2002 after the outbreak of that epidemic caused by a coronavirus related to the newly identified one.
The government is now belatedly taking some action. Today it deployed 450 military medics, some of whom helped tackle the ebola epidemic in Africa, to Wuhan, while another 800 civilian doctors and nurses arrived on special flights and trains at an airport and station closed to commercial traffic.
The city’s authorities announced they would build a second “pop-up” hospital, this one with 1,300 beds, to help handle the crisis. Construction began this week on a prefabricated 1,000-bed structure that is scheduled to be completed within 10 days.
The country marked the new year in subdued fashion after cancelling public celebrations. Streets were almost empty in cities, with many restaurants and shops closed, and public transport suspended. Many popular attractions, including the Forbidden City in Beijing, stretches of the Great Wall and Disneyland in Shanghai, have been closed.
Chinese travel companies have been ordered to halt indefinitely all domestic and international group tours, and Beijing also announced restrictions on bus traffic into the capital. Hong Kong today ordered schools to remain closed after the lunar new year holiday until at least February 17 and cancelled the marathon on February 9.