Slumped in wheelchairs and lying on gurneys, the sickened patients crowd every nook and cranny of the emergency department at the hospital in northern China. They cram into the narrow spaces between elevator doors. They surround an idle walk-through metal detector. And they line the walls of a corridor ringing with the sounds of coughing.
China’s hospitals were already overcrowded, underfunded and inadequately staffed in the best of times. But now with Covid spreading freely for the first time in China, the medical system is being pushed to its limits.
The scenes of desperation and misery at the Tianjin Medical University General Hospital, captured on one of several videos examined by The New York Times, reflects the growing crisis. Even as Covid cases rise, health workers on the front lines are also battling rampant infections within their own ranks. So many have tested positive for the virus in some hospitals that the remaining few say they are forced to do the job of five or more co-workers.
To ensure enough staff members are on the floor, some facilities have given up requiring doctors and nurses to test themselves before work. One doctor in the central city of Wuhan said her hospital’s staff had been so depleted that a neurosurgeon in her department recently had to perform two operations in one day while fighting symptoms of Covid.
“The hospital was operating on the brink,” said the physician, Dr. Judy Pu, whose ward usually has 10 to 15 nurses and was down to just a pair. “About 80 to 90 percent of the people around me have been infected.”
China was the first country to experience the panic of Covid when it emerged from Wuhan in 2019. Then, for the past three years, the country largely suppressed the virus with a costly mix of mass testing, strict lockdowns and border closures. The government could have used the time to bolster its health system by stockpiling medicine and building more critical care units. It could have launched a major vaccination drive targeting the millions of vulnerable older adults who were reluctant to receive a jab or booster. China did little of that, however, plunging into crisis mode again like in the early days of Wuhan. [Continue reading…]