This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Wuhan residents and a citizen journalist at the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic say the city is fighting a losing battle as the death toll rose on Friday to 213, with nearly 10,000 confirmed cases around the world.
Of the 9,776 cases confirmed globally, 5,806 were in the central Chinese province of Hubei, of which Wuhan is the capital.
Several hundred cases have now been confirmed in each of Zhejiang, Guangdong, and Henan, with Hunan, Jiangxi and Anhui reporting more than 200 apiece.
One death has been confirmed in Shanghai and one each in Shaanxi and Heilongjiang, with two in the southwestern province of Yunnan, according to a map of the epidemic compiled by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
Reports from inside quarantined Wuhan draw a picture of a city where normal life has been largely abandoned, where hard-pressed medical teams routinely turn away patients for lack of beds or supplies, and where the majority of infections may not even have been counted.
A medical worker in Wuhan said hospitals in the city are now full of pneumonia patients, and are turning more away, meaning that they go back home and infect their families.
“Many of my friends have gotten sick, but they can’t get admitted to a hospital, and those who have managed it are usually private patients who can pay the bills themselves,” the healthcare worker said.
“We have seen the official count of confirmed cases, but a lot of people who have the coronavirus in Wuhan right now aren’t getting diagnosed by the hospitals, because the government said that any coronavirus patients can get treatment at government expense,” they said.
“If you don’t get diagnosed, then once your medical insurance runs out you have to pay the bill yourself, so a lot of hospitals won’t give you a diagnosis.”
Pushed beyond capacity
Citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, who traveled to Wuhan to report on the situation on the ground, painted a picture of a system pushed far beyond its capacity to cope.
In a video posted to YouTube, Chen also said that the majority of cases would never get diagnosed or included in the official figures.
“The majority of people are now confined to their homes,” Chen said. “They don’t even want people going outside within their residential compounds.”
“If there’s no transportation, how are you going to get to the hospital? And when you get there, you don’t get admitted. So what’s the point of going to the hospital if you can’t get diagnosed?”
Chen said many people were walking to the hospital or riding motorbikes or three-wheelers because there weren’t enough ambulances or even taxis to cope with demand.
“Yesterday I went to Wuhan No. 5 Hospital. I lined up as if I was sick … and the triage nurse said to me, you are 168th in line,” he said.
“There’s a shortage of supplies, of masks, of protective clothing, and most importantly, of test kits,” Chen said. “You can’t get to see a doctor without a hospital bed, you can’t get a hospital bed without a positive diagnosis, and you can’t get a diagnosis without a test kit.”
“There’s no point in lying there with all those other people if you can’t get seen by a doctor. That’s why so many people are just ‘suspected cases’ at home,” he said.
Chen showed video clips of rows of beds and reclining chairs with people on drips and wearing masks in the waiting room of Wuhan No. 5 Hospital’s ER.
“Every hospital I went to said they didn’t have enough beds, that there were no available beds,” he said. “Some of the people in the waiting room were in a very bad way. Some were still in their vehicle, and they had hung a drip from a nearby branch and were getting their drip right there. Some were sitting outside in the open air on the steps with a drip.”
He said he had already heard from police, who wanted to know where he was staying.
“In my face is the coronavirus, and at my back is the entire law enforcement system of China,” Chen said. “But I will carry on reporting from Wuhan for as long as I am still alive. If I’m not afraid to die, why would I fear the Communist Party?”
Unbearable to watch
Beijing-based independent journalist Gao Yu said she had the impression of “total chaos” from reading social media posts from the frontline of the epidemic, and from watching Chen’s video.
“There seems to be total chaos, all the way from the [ruling Chinese Communist Party] central leadership, to Hubei province, to Wuhan municipality, and all the way down to village level,” Gao said.
“The situation in the hospitals is unbearable to watch.”
Sun Ru, a resident of Wuhan, said her father had become infected after believing the initial claim from health authorities that the virus wasn’t transmissible between people.
“The government propaganda was saying no human-to-human transmission back then, so nobody thought they could catch it,” Sun told RFA. “Now even the medical staff are catching it.”
Early warning given
Eight people “summoned” and questioned by police on Jan. 1 for “rumor-mongering” about the virus have since been found to be doctors working at the front line of the outbreak, according to Weibo CEO Wang Gaofei.
“If the public had listened to this so-called rumor at the time, and started wearing masks and disinfecting everything … we would be in a better situation today,” Wang wrote.
The Supreme People’s Court recently decided that no charges would be brought against them, it said via its Weibo account.
“It turns out that although the new type of pneumonia is not SARS, the content published by the people concerned is not completely fabricated,” the Court said.
According to Chen Qiushi, Wuhan’s taxi drivers were talking about a SARS-like illness in connection with the Huanan Market as early as mid-to-late December.
Chen Bingzhong, former director of the China Institute of Health Education under the ministry of health, said if the doctors were listened to instead of being summoned by police and accused of spreading rumors, the epidemic might have been better controlled.
“Whenever there is a major emergency, the first step [the government takes] is always to maintain stability,” Chen said. “It comes before anything else.”
“This sort of tragedy will repeat itself unless the system is changed,” he said. “Those with wealth and power look out for their own interests.”
Wuhan’s health authorities continued to deny that the coronavirus was transmissible between humans until the beginning of this month.