Videos show the severity of China’s covid outbreak

Heavy crowding is seen in footage from Tianjin Medical University General Hospital in Tianjin, China, that was posted on Dec. 20. (Video: @ users/Douyin)

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Emergency departments are overflowing, with patients sleeping in hallways until they can be evaluated or taken to a hospital room. In at least one hospital, half of the doctors and nurses were absent because they had tested positive for covid.

These and other alarming scenes in China’s medical facilities have been captured in videos and photographs posted to social media during the past two weeks. They offer a glimpse of the toll a huge coronavirus wave is wreaking — and undercut Beijing’s claim that the government is in control.

The full extent of the outbreak is unclear. The government’s sudden easing of coronavirus restrictions in early December came as infections were already surging. Officials soon stopped reporting asymptomatic cases, leaving the public to rely on social media to understand what was happening.

To better assess the impact of the current wave — which projections suggest could claim more than 1 million lives in 2023 — The Washington Post tracked hundreds of posts on popular Chinese platforms, including Weibo and Douyin, and reviewed material that was reposted on Twitter and other sites. The Post’s preliminary analysis found evidence of overwhelmed health-care facilities in major cities, particularly along the country’s heavily populated east coast.

Given China’s strict censorship, the content is only a snapshot of what’s happening nationwide. But it shows that many communities are struggling to cope with the massive number of patients infected with covid.

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Most at risk: The elderly

Videos like this one, taken at Tianjin Medical University Hospital and posted on Douyin — a Chinese video platform owned by TikTok parent company ByteDance — reveal the current strain on medical facilities. Patients, many of them elderly, are seen resting on gurneys or cots in crowded lobbies or near elevators and other public areas. Family members appear to hover nearby — proximity certain to help spread the virus.

A video posted to social media on Dec. 20 — described as taken a day prior — shows visibly sick patients crowded in Tianjin Medical University General Hospital. (Video: @username/Douyin)

“It’s clear that [in] those major cities, the health-care system is overwhelmed because of the rapid increase of the cases, especially [among] the elderly,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, who reviewed the footage for The Post. Only about 40 percent of people aged 80 and older in China have received a coronavirus booster shot.

This viral tsunami hit northern cities fastest and hardest. Beijing’s health authorities said on Dec. 11 that 22,000 people daily were visiting fever clinics, 16 times more than the previous week.

A video posted to Douyin on Wednesday shows many elderly patients seeking care at Beijing Tsinghua Changgung Hospital. “The emergency room is extremely crowded,” wrote a woman who said she had brought her mother for care a day earlier. “Wherever I went, wherever I looked, there were younger senior citizens accompanying those even older,” the woman noted. “Everyone must please take care of the elderly around you.”

A video posted to social media on Dec. 21 shows crowded conditions at Tsinghua Changgung Hospital in Beijing. (Video: @Mrs树树/Douyin)

The country’s most populous city is suffering a similar outbreak. On Wednesday, Shanghai Neuromedical Center posted — then quickly deleted — a WeChat article estimating that 7 million residents were already infected and that half of the city’s 25 million people would be infected by the end of this week.

Shanghai’s draconian lockdown in March and April traumatized locals and shocked the rest of the country. The municipal government, determined to avoid a replay of acutely sick people stuck at home without medical care, is directing patients to 2,600 designated fever clinics across the city.

State media reported Friday that the emergency department of the Zhongshan Hospital, one of the most prominent in China, was handling about 1,000 patients a day, up from 700 to 800 at the same time last year.

Inside the ER, a video taken Wednesday by a journalist for The Post shows patients crammed in hallway after hallway — on gurneys, cots and even folding chairs probably brought from home. Relatives crouched by their sides, leaving barely enough room for others to walk.

Video taken inside Shanghai’s Zhongshan hospital on Dec. 21 shows hallways crammed with mostly elderly patients. (Video: Lisa Movius/The Washington Post)

Videos and social media posts also suggest some children’s facilities are unusually busy, especially with parents bringing in young babies despite officials’ assurances that infants are at lower risk than other vulnerable groups. A popular video blogger’s announcement on Dec. 20 that his 2-year-old daughter died of encephalitis caused by a coronavirus fever was discussed widely online, although authorities never confirmed any connection publicly.

Illness among the young could be exacerbated by other respiratory viruses, including the combination of flu and RSV that has hit children in the United States hard, noted Justin Lessler, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina.

“There are few, if any, places in the world where the health system would not be severely taxed by a large epidemic of severe respiratory infections in children,” said Lessler, who also reviewed footage that was part of The Post’s analysis.

Video posted by one father in the southern city of Guangzhou shows weary family members waiting with little ones in the hallways of Guangzhou Women and Children’s Medical Center. The man explained that he had been there for 10 hours.

Video posted to social media on Dec. 21 shows families waiting with small children at a recently constructed hospital in the southern city of Guangzhou. (Video: @明天会会生/Douyin)

Hospitals with too few doctors and nurses

The National Health Commission recently advised hospitals to rehire retired health-care workers to help deal with exploding numbers of covid cases — as well as to fill in for doctors and nurses who have themselves become infected.

Nearly 1,000 staff were called back to front-line positions in Guangzhou, according to local reports. Doctors and nurses are being redeployed from smaller cities to Beijing, where officials have converted sports stadiums previously used as centralized quarantine centers to serve as temporary emergency wards.

In Nanjing, about 190 miles west of Shanghai, the Nanjing Drum Tower Hospital reported that half of its doctors and even more nurses were on sick leave because of covid. Visitors posted videos of an empty entrance foyer with signs saying that most counters were temporarily closed.

Video posted to social media on Dec. 21 shows empty hallways and closed counters at the Nanjing Drum Tower Hospital because of staff testing positive for covid. (Video: @雲山石岩/Douyin)

The pressures continue to increase. In eastern China, the Wenzhou Medical University Second Affiliated Hospital said in a statement that one of its pharmacists had fainted from fatigue while on the job at 4 am The Post verified three videos showing people packed into the hospital’s common areas.

Video posted to Douyin on Dec. 21 shows large numbers of people inside the Second Affiliated Hospital of Wenzhou Medical University in Wenzhou, China. (Video: @ 清零/Douyin)

Triaging medical resources will be a challenge in a country that for decades has tried, with limited success, to keep medicines, equipment and health-care professionals from being concentrated only in large hospitals in major cities. Although well-known facilities are in theory best equipped to handle critical cases, they often end up overrun and their staff exhausted.

In Shenzhen, China’s third-most-populous city, many people are desperate to see a doctor. One video posted to Douyin on Dec. 19 shows a line stretching around the block at Longhua People’s Hospital. Wait times have extended to more than half a day, according to videos and pictures from the scene confirmed by patients and verified by The Post.

Video posted to social media on Dec. 19 shows a line stretching around the block outside Longhua People’s Hospital in Shenzhen. (Video: @费费/Douyin)

When Zhou Zedong, 28, arrived there late the next night, he was warned about a 20-hour wait. Shortly before midnight, he went home with plans to come back the next morning — only to discover upon his return that he’d missed his number being called and would have to start the process again.

“It makes me angry,” said Zhou, who diverted to a traditional Chinese medicine clinic and asked family members to send medicines that were sold out at many pharmacies in Shenzhen. “It’s not the level of medical care that a first-tier city should have.”

Suddenly, a country of ‘zero negative’

The government’s contradictory messaging has intensified public unease. For nearly three years, authorities justified harsh lockdowns as necessary to save every life possible. Anger over the “zero covid” policies erupted publicly in November with a week of defiant protests in at least a dozen cities.

Chinese lock themselves down, hoard medicine over fear of new covid wave

Then, almost overnight, everything changed. Required testing and centralized quarantine were jettisoned. And just as international health experts had predicted, a country with very limited immunity succumbed quickly to the virus. Some Chinese joke that the government’s new policy is “zero negative” because everyone is infected.

Jonathan Chen, 21, a medical school student, visited the University of Hong Kong’s Shenzhen Hospital on Tuesday after testing positive and spiking a fever. He waited for eight hours to see a doctor and now wonders whether “zero covid” should have been phased out gradually.

“I used to hope the government would open up as soon as possible,” Chen said. He’s no longer sure that was the smartest move.

Meg Kelly in Washington, Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei and Lisa Movius in Shanghai contributed to this report.

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