This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Deaths and infections among healthcare professionals in China continue to be a concern in the coronavirus epidemic, especially in the worst-hit central province of Hubei and its capital Wuhan.
Mainland China on Thursday reported 2,118 deaths and 74,576 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with newly confirmed cases rising more slowly than in previous weeks.
More than 80 percent of the country’s cases are in Hubei, as are more than 95 percent of the deaths, China’s National Health Commission said.
Wang Ping, director of Wuhan’s No. 8 Hospital, became the latest high-profile healthcare figure to be confirmed as infected with COVID-19, after the death of whistle-blowing doctor Li Wenliang and Liu Zhiming, director of Wuhan’s Wuchang Hospital.
A resident of Hubei’s Jingzhou city surnamed Mao said news reports have indicated that the director of Wuhan No.8 Hospital is among the confirmed cases.
“We saw it yesterday … she could be in a critical condition,” he said.
He said restrictions are also tight in his city, with strict controls on who can leave their homes, and essential shopping trips arranged by the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s neighborhood committees.
“What is happening now is that people must remain in their homes,” he said.
Shortage of protective equipment
Some 3,000 medical personnel are believed to have been infected with COVID-19, sparking concerns over how the epidemic will develop in the weeks to come.
Wuhan volunteer Xu Wenli told RFA that there is currently a shortage of protective equipment for frontline medical staff, and that some medical staff are wearing protective suits for two days straight rather than changing them regularly. Social media posts have also claimed that some medical staff are fashioning their own protective equipment from different materials.
Xu said the situation on the ground in Wuhan appears to be far worse than during the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003 that left around 800 people dead.
“SARS wasn’t this bad,” Xu said. “The funeral homes of Wuhan are working overtime to cremate bodies, day in, day out.”
“They could cremate one or two thousand bodies in a day, but they have been cremating now for more than 20 days.”
A volunteer in Wuhan who asked to remain anonymous said local medical sources are saying that the relatively high mortality rate is likely due to patients only getting treated when the disease has progressed to the point that they are seriously ill.
Wuhan residents have described a system under which local neighborhood committees are tasked with issuing permits for patients to leave their residential communities and travel to hospital, and that nobody without approval from local officials is being offered treatment when they arrive at the city’s overwhelmed hospitals.
“Part of it is ignorance, and part of it is the government’s doing,” the volunteer said. “They suppress the news, and if you wait until people learn about it, it’s too late, and they are basically looking at dying in quarantine.”
“Inside information indicates that the mortality rate for critically ill [COVID-19] patients is 50 percent,” he said.
Crackdown on critical views
A medical staff member in the logistics department at Wuhan No. 1 Hospital agreed with the volunteer’s estimate.
“It may start off with mild symptoms, but if they can’t fight off the virus, the infection becomes severe,” the staff member said. “The mortality rate for severe illness is more than 50 percent.”
Authorities are continuing to crack down on anyone with outspoken views about the ruling party’s handling of the epidemic.
Cutting edge opinion blog Dajia was deleted by social media giant Tencent on Feb. 19 and all of its archive removed from the internet after it criticized state media’s coverage of the coronavirus epidemic, which it said was irresponsible and dangerously misleading.
The piece, penned by veteran Chinese journalist Chen Jibing, had garnered hundreds of comments critical of the lack of press freedom under the Chinese Communist Party.
Sources told RFA that the powerful Political and Legal Affairs Committee of the Chinese Communist Party has issued a directive requiring all regions begin providing “heart-warming” coverage of the epidemic.
“Originally, the propaganda was controlled by the central propaganda department, but now it’s the political and legal affairs committee [the arm of the Communist Party in charge of law enforcement] that is controlling everything,” one source said.