After the relaxation of China's strict zero-Covid strategy, many hospitals are dealing with an onslaught of infected people. In metropolises like Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu or Shijiazhuang, hospitals experienced “the first shock of a gigantic wave of infections and a shortage of health workers,” wrote the renowned business magazine “Caixin” on Monday and spoke of “Covid chaos”.
Emergency rooms are overcrowded. People seeking help have to wait up to five or six hours in long queues – sometimes with wintry temperatures.
Radical U-turn in China
In a radical U-turn, the government largely scrapped its rigorous zero-Covid strategy last Wednesday. Lockdowns have been ended, the strict obligation to test and forced quarantine or isolation of contacts has been largely relaxed. Even before that, there had been signs that the number of infected people was increasing noticeably and that the testing capacities and official tracking of the infections had long since been unable to keep up.
"The current omicron mutation is highly contagious," said leading Chinese epidemiologist and government adviser Zhong Nanshan in an interview of the government's 180-degree turnaround. The epidemic is currently spreading very quickly. "Under such circumstances, it is difficult to completely break the chains of transmission - no matter how strong the prevention and control."
Some hospitals were caught unprepared
The surprising change of course caught many hospitals largely unprepared. A big problem is separating Covid cases from other patients and protecting your own staff. Infected people often infect doctors and other employees. "Our hospital follows strict protective measures every day, but with the increase in patients, the infection rate among our medical staff is high," Zhongguo Shibao newspaper quoted a doctor at a hospital in southern Guangdong Province as saying.
The previous strict precautionary protocol is already being partially relaxed. A doctor in Beijing reported that she had to continue working despite her own infection. The definition of contact person is also broader than before. Where it is still strictly applied, large parts of the doctors and nurses are not on duty because they are infected themselves or are in isolation as close contacts.
Cold and fever medication and rapid tests are sold out in many pharmacies. Many shops and restaurants are closed in Beijing, for example. People don't dare to go outside for fear of infection. The otherwise congested streets of the capital seemed empty on Monday. A sandstorm also darkened the 21-million metropolis, which not only caused the highest smog levels in years, but also a gloomy mood of doom.
The danger of the virus is now downplayed
After the authorities issued urgent warnings about Omicron in recent months, state media are now downplaying the danger of the virus and comparing the infection with ordinary flu. This causes great uncertainty. People have also been strongly warned not to go to hospitals unless absolutely necessary. Rather, patients should cure the infection themselves at home with flu medication. Since there are no resident doctors in China, many Chinese go to the hospital to see a doctor, even if they have minor problems.
In front of the Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing, people stood in line for hours at the weekend, warming themselves up with hot instant noodle soups in cold winter weather and temperatures of a maximum of six degrees. Younger family members stood in line for older ones. Experts fear that the corona wave will now hit older people in particular, many of whom are not sufficiently vaccinated in China for fear of side effects. Only 40 percent of people older than 80 have received a booster shot so far.
According to the party-affiliated newspaper “Global Times”, leading epidemiologists said that the wave of infections would peak within a month. Since there is no longer any testing and probably hardly any reports, the official case numbers no longer reflect what is happening. Sickness reports in companies are skyrocketing. "I know of 25 positive cases or sick people in my area alone," said a resident of Beijing. Another estimated that a third of his acquaintances were ill. The German embassy in Beijing was also affected: the legal and consular departments were closed on Monday “due to illness”.