On a cold March afternoon in a locked-down city in China’s northeastern Jilin province, Chang Liping was standing outside a hospital, desperate and unsure of where to go.
Chang had been struggling to get her husband, who suffers from a kidney condition, into dialysis for four days — a routine treatment that’s become a seeming impossibility after their city of Changchun was forced into a strict lockdown earlier that month, in response to an outbreak of Covid-19.
She’d taken him to the hospital designated for residents whose housing blocks — like theirs — had positive Covid-19 cases, Chang said. Even still, they were turned away. The best a community worker could do, according to Chang, was add her husband to a queue.
“But how can he wait? … He has been afraid to eat and drink for four days … for fear of poisoning his body,” Chang said. “The hospital won’t let us in, and we don’t know where to go …. now do I have to watch him die?”
In another part of the city, Li Chenxi was also in a panic, unable to access care for her mother, who has endometrial cancer. For more than two weeks, her mother had received no treatment after the industrial city of 8.5 million went into lockdown on March 11. Their local hospital wasn’t accepting patients during the outbreak, Li said, and she hadn’t found another opening.
“The only thing we can do is wait. But the tumor won’t wait for us. The tumor is growing every day,” Li said.
“There are so many diseases that are more serious than Covid … My mom has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and I just want to get the medicine as soon as possible so I can keep her alive,” Li said through tears.
For Li and Chang, their loved ones’ individual health crises are inexorably caught up in China’s larger one, as the country grapples with its first major outbreak of Covid-19 in more than two years. Now multiple cities — including the financial hub of Shanghai and several cities in the country’s northern “rust belt” — have been placed under government mandated lockdown, part of China’s uncompromising “zero-Covid” strategy.
For two years, that approach — to attempt to stamp out all infections through stringent isolation measures, mass testing and tracing, and blunt lockdowns — has been hailed by the ruling Communist Party as a success.
But now, as the country struggles to get a handle on a weeks-long outbreak of the highly infectious Omicron BA.2 variant, horror stories like Chang’s and Li’s are, too, becoming part of what “zero-Covid” means for China.
Within that “zero-Covid” regime, medical systems can be quickly overwhelmed by the requirements to isolate all positive cases — regardless of their severity — even after rules were loosened last month to allow patients to be sent to central quarantine facilities and not only hospitals.
Regular tasks for medical workers can also be complicated by procedures to avoid cross-contamination, while hospital emergency wards are regularly closed for “disinfection” due to Covid-19 exposure.
And for those under lockdown, traveling to hospital can be challenging, often requiring special permission or ambulances.
All this has had the unintended consequence of putting the health of vulnerable people at risk, as health authorities try to protect the country against a massive outbreak of Covid-19.
Local governments grappling with recent Covid-19 outbreaks have acknowledged these shortcomings — and in many cases have rolled out support hotlines and other measures — like permits to leave restricted compounds — to help people access medical care.
But this may not always be enough.
The Changchun Municipal Government said it had already addressed access to medical treatment and issued directives “emphasizing that priority be given to (critically ill) patients.”