Despite Government Assurances, Medical Workers in Hubei Say They Lack Supplies

Amid quickly changing news about the trajectory of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, on February 20, the Chinese government body overseeing the response to the epidemic announced that medical supplies adequate to combating the spread of the disease were now “generally guaranteed.” China Daily tweeted the news with the headline, “Shortage of Medical Supplies in Hubei Ends.” I have spent the past month trying to organize shipments of donations of medical gear to hospitals in Hubei, and while the doctors, nurses, and their family members I have contacted say the situation has improved, they continue to report shortages of supplies, concerns about further infections among medical workers and skepticism about official numbers of infections.

On January 23, the day China’s government locked down the city of Wuhan in an attempt to limit the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus, I logged onto my account on the Chinese social media platform Weibo to find multiple news outlets reporting a run on groceries, thousands of patients waiting in line to see doctors, and empty streets. Among all the posts, the ones retweeted the most were pleas from Wuhan hospitals asking for help. “There’s a shortage of medical supplies, help!” read a post from the Wuhan Children’s Hospital. “Current medical supplies can only last three to four days,” wrote someone from the Wuhan No. 1 Hospital. At Wuhan Union Hospital, a medical worker worried that “with the Chinese new year coming, many suppliers won’t be able to ensure normal production, most express delivery companies have gone on holiday, and that will make purchasing medical supplies extremely difficult.” There were requests for N95 masks, goggles, protective suits, and scrubs.

Many of my fellow Chinese friends living in America were already concerned about conditions in Wuhan. Many of us had relatives or classmates among the city’s 11 million residents. I suggested we purchase medical supplies on Amazon or eBay and ship them to China. That night, we started a WeChat group to connect people and exchange information. Soon after I posted about it on my Weibo account, about 80 people joined the effort: organizers of Chinese student associations in America, medical workers working in Wuhan, reporters, and lawyers. In the weeks since, people in the group have donated around 10,000 hazmat suits, 100,000 masks, and many other medical supplies.

And yet despite similar efforts, as well as a major Chinese government push to ramp up production of protective gear, eight doctors and nurses at five hospitals I have been in touch with over the past week describe precarious conditions in which basic supplies are still inadequate.



Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear

Xu Zhangrun & Geremie R. Barmé
Overnight, the country found itself in the grip of a devastating crisis; fear was stalking the land. The authorities proved themselves to be at a loss and the cost of their behavior was soon visited upon the common people. Before long, the...

On February 7, a nurse I will call Wang to protect her privacy, who works at a medium-size hospital in Wuhan, told me that at just her hospital alone, 110 out of around 500 medical workers showed symptoms of coronavirus infection and were in home-quarantine, while another 30 were severely ill and had been hospitalized. Wang became infected herself. She sent me copies of the results of a CT scan of her lungs, as well as a screenshot of the WeChat group roster of medical workers at her hospital under home quarantine. Earlier this week, she visited her hospital for a test to confirm her diagnosis. She told me she learned that her colleagues are having to reuse their protective gear, and that one nurse had to wear the same hazmat suit five days in a row.

Wang’s concerns have also been heightened by the government’s initial response to the outbreak. She told me that in early January, one of her colleagues and friends, a young nurse, was assigned to treat a patient whose symptoms resembled those of the new SARS-like virus she had heard was circulating. That nurse, who described her situation in WeChat messages viewed by ChinaFile, wrote that,

Very early on, we realized there was human-to-human transmission. The head of our hospital, our department head, and other hospital administrators . . . all sat there making phone calls, [they called everyone] from the Jiang’an District all the way up to the Municipal Health Commission. The higher-ups had a single order: “waisong neijin [act relaxed toward the outside world, remain strict on the inside]. Solve this yourself. Moreover, don’t wear hazmat suits, lest it cause panic.” So in order to protect my fellow nurses, I did everything myself because we knew it was infectious and we knew no one would protect us.

In mid-January, the last time Wang called her friend, she told me, the nurse said her parents had been warned their daughter should stop talking about her situation.

A doctor at a hospital in Shiyan, another city in Hubei province, sent me a document circulated to employees at her hospital last week warning hospital employees and their family members that sharing information about the coronavirus situation in their hospital could result in firing, loss of their status as civil servants, or expulsion from the Chinese Community Party.



Public Anger Over Coronavirus Is Mounting. Will It Matter?

Daniel Mattingly, Chenjian Li & more
The coronavirus outbreak that exploded three weeks ago in the central Chinese city of Wuhan has prompted the most severe government actions in three decades. Cities are closed down, transport links broken, and tens of millions of people effectively...

Despite these kinds of warnings, doctors and nurses have continued to reach out. A senior doctor at Hubei Maternity and Child Health Care Hospital told me on January 25 that her hospital, not originally designated for Covid-19 patients, had had to improvise isolation wards when maternity patients came to the hospital exhibiting symptoms, and that several medical workers had become infected. As of February 9, she said her hospital was still in need of hazmat suits. In her most recent message, she said her fellow doctors lack proper protective clothing, and that “patient-facing” staff have been allocated just two surgical gowns each day as protective gear.

Altogether, over the past month, I have talked to 31 medical workers in 11 hospitals in Wuhan and nearby regions. Many of them have sent me photographs to illustrate the conditions under which they are working. The images showed some doctors reduced to making protective suits out of raincoats and garbage bags, and fashioning goggles out of plastic folders. Three doctors (who work at three different hospitals in Wuhan) told me in late January that they wore diapers at work because protective clothing was in such short supply and they would have needed to change it after a trip to the bathroom.



How Much Could a New Virus Damage Beijing’s Legitimacy?

Taisu Zhang
A month into the coronavirus epidemic that has swept across China, the details of the Chinese government’s political and administrative response remain highly ambiguous. What has been unmistakable, however, is the volume and intensity of social...

Compounding the sense of desperation among both the medical works and would-be donors I’m in touch with has been the difficulty of ensuring donations are able to reach medical facilities that need supplies. On January 26, the Ministry of Civil Affairs announced that all private donations made to hospitals in Wuhan would need to be sent to the Wuhan Red Cross or four other government-owned organizations, which would centralize donations and distribute them to hospitals in greatest need. Nine medical workers at nine different hospitals still provided their addresses to a U.S. donor offering a donation of 10,000 hazmat suits in hopes of circumventing the Red Cross.

Even the Red Cross’ own communications suggested reasons to doubt. The Wuhan Red Cross official Weibo account said that as of January 28 it had received donations totaling 399 million renminbi, but had only distributed 54 million renminbi’s worth. Meanwhile, reporters from YiMagazine published a photo of desperately needed medical supplies piling up at a Red Cross warehouse. According to Initium Media, a Beijing company donated 15 million renminbi worth of medical supplies to Wuhan on January 26, but these supplies were not distributed to medical staff. The Wuhan Red Cross described the delays as due to “lack of manpower.” Its website shows it has only 13 employees.

To try to better understand the situation, on January 30 I messaged two volunteers working for the Red Cross in Wuhan. They described both lack of adequate staffing and what sounded like looting.

One of them wrote:

There is a lack of organization and management at the Red Cross . . . The registration process [to pick up donations] is very ad hoc. . . A relative or friend of a Red Cross official . . . came in and took away a dozen bottles of disinfectant. . . When hospital representatives came, Red Cross officials told them to take whatever was available at the moment. It feels very haphazard.”

And messages from doctors continued. A doctor treating coronavirus patients at the Wuhan Central Hospital wrote to me on February 11 requesting a ventilator, hazmat suits, and N95 masks. She wrote again on February 15 to say she needed as many medical supplies as possible. On February 18, the daughter of a doctor at another hospital in Wuhan designated to receive Covid-19 patients told me that she was concerned about her mother, who still didn’t have protective goggles even though she was treating infected patients. As this story went to press, the doctor in Shiyan messaged me. “I want to tell you the official numbers are fake. They are being pruned,” she wrote. “Infections are declining…[yet] the situation for ‘frontline’ medical workers is still tragic because they lack supplies…Hazmat suits are still insufficient and it’s creating real difficulties both for medical workers on the “frontline” and those treating ordinary patients.” She told me she had just checked in with a colleague in her hospital’s nursing department where masks and hazmat suits were still in short supply. “It’s too horrible,” she concluded.

On February 12, a doctor at Wuhan Central Hospital posted a video on Weibo showing how he had improvised protective gear out of garbage bags and was wearing a mask designed for industrial, not medical, use. “Our job is on the front line. Hopefully we won’t go into battle unarmed or unprotected. If we are to shed our blood, it shouldn’t be for nothing.”