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Suffering in silence: Stories from Wuhan

A resident wearing a protective mask and a plastic bag is seen outside a supermarket in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in China's central Hubei Province. AFP
A resident wearing a protective mask and a plastic bag is seen outside a supermarket in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in China's central Hubei Province. AFP

By Amanda Price

A Twitter post left for the World Health Organization regarding coronavirus victims read: "Remember, these are not numbers, but real people. Unfortunately, there are still some people who are not included, and their life and death stories are outside the statistics."

If you run an internet search on any aspect of the coronavirus, you will find countless web pages replete with statistics. The South China Morning Post publishes a running tally alongside almost every article on the subject. If you want more a more reliable source, the "Worldometer" website provides figures that are updated in real time.

Numbers seem to have a power over us. We feel safe if they are single digit, concern when they are double, and panic when they become triple. It is part of our survival instinct, part of our highly globalized sensitivity to impending danger. We not only have statistics almost as soon as they are counted, we now know what they mean as well.

In these dense forests of facts and figures, it is hard to see the people for the data. Human beings hidden behind numbers are less likely to cause international outrage. Figures can be fudged, but faces are harder to forget.

Countless experts and analysts have claimed that the Chinese government is providing us with "an inadequate picture" of what's really happening at ground zero.

John Edmunds, an analysis professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told Reuters: "We have a very incomplete picture of what's going on. Whether it's incompetence, secrecy or deliberate". Edmunds explained that the unverified data that China provided made it impossible to progress at the pace that the crisis demanded.

Medical staff collapsing from trauma, family members searching for loved ones who suspiciously disappeared and terrified children left behind with strangers are missing from the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) narrative. But even with a manipulated narrative, what we hear is distressing.

Independent Chinese journalists, foreign press and social media activists squeeze out as much information as they can, at least until they are traced and their work disappears. From the scraps that we have, a picture emerges that contradicts official reports.

Within cities quarantined, the spread of the coronavirus was somewhat curtailed. However, in the wake of the virus a new illness has spread ― fear.

Residents interviewed by journalists from Reuters and Caijing claim their primary fear is no longer catching the coronavirus, but whether they are able to receive treatment.

Between the sick and treatment is an almost impenetrable wall built by years of autocracy and officialdom. Residents report that because of complex and sequential reporting systems, involving district managers, city officials and disease control authorities, it is now commonplace to be denied treatment for trying to take a short cut through the maze of protocol. And being at death's door does not make you an exception.

To qualify for any tests, certain rigid criteria must be met by all potential patients. This process is exhausting, the paperwork seems endless, but residents have begun to suspect that there are two factors that create this "death by bureaucracy". The first is the unprecedented spread of the virus and the inadequacy of resources; the second is that a dead person is one less person that needs attention.

As if this were not enough, residents have reported that even when they have fought their way inside a hospital, they have been turned away because their symptoms were not "severe enough".

As one resident reported, "severe symptoms means you are dying, otherwise you do not qualify. But if you are too close to death or too old to survive, they may give you oxygen and tell you to self-quarantine. It's not the doctor's fault, but only the ones in between get a bed. Then they (officials) count beds, not the people sent away."

Tong Yixuan's father was drifting in and out of consciousness due to his febrile state. He was able to get into a hospital where doctors said it was almost certainly the coronavirus. He was sent to another ward but was told there was no bed for him and, as he could still breath without aid, his symptoms were not severe enough. Tong was told to take his father home and keep him isolated.

Staff in protective clothing distribute food to patients that were quarantined in a hotel in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, Feb. 5. EPA
Staff in protective clothing distribute food to patients that were quarantined in a hotel in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, Feb. 5. EPA

The information that the CCP does not release is that a proportion of citizens are, literally, dying while their relatives beg authorities to test them and, if they are lucky, treat them as well. Many residents say that getting healthcare for themselves or their families, at even the most basic level, is becoming an impossible quest. Others have said "it is like winning the lottery."

Lim began to feel unwell on January 24 and subsequently collapsed on the street. He was 80. He found his way to a district clinic where, despite being feverish, he was told he would have to go to a larger hospital that had more equipment. He waited, with his daughter, over five hours to see a doctor who said he would need to wait for six hours before scans could be done.

Lim was shivering with fever, so his daughter took him home. Waiting for hours the following morning, Lim was finally taken in for a scan. Tests could not be done that day as they had run out of kits, but his daughter was told his scans showed both lungs were severely infected.

They were told to go to the emergency room where he waited another six hours. The next day, the same hospital told Lim they had no bed for him and he would have to try another hospital.

After being turned away from two more hospitals, Lim could not breathe, so his daughter called an ambulance, only to be told that, without official documentation from the hospital, they could not come. Lim died from the virus for lack of a piece of paper.

Residents have reported that every day they nervously wait for the sound of vans arriving to collect those who've died in their homes. There are no autopsies. Bodies are immediately taken to the crematorium where ashes remain until relatives pick them up.

Lim was fortunate, he had a daughter to care for him. But there are many less fortunate, and if they get sick, there may be no one to wait with them, no one to plead their case, no one to notice that they are no longer there.

None of these people's deaths will be recorded by authorities among the tally of victims. These were the coronavirus victims who died because they were unable to sit for hour upon hour, or day after day, or make the arduous journey from hospital to hospital.

But the elderly are far from the only ones with stories like Lim.

Seeping through cracks in the great firewall of China are countless stories of far younger individuals waiting for days as their symptoms worsened and their infection spread. Student Xiping, 28, was turned away from six hospitals and refused treatment for want of a piece of paper that no one had time to give him.

Tragedy does not belong only to the sick. Children, though less often infected, become a new level of victims of the virus when their parents or guardians are found to be infected. Stories of children and toddlers left with neighbors, or placed into wards all alone because they have no one to care for them, have sprung up on the internet.

One of these stories made headlines when a boy with advanced cerebral palsy was left to die despite his father, who was infected, pleading for someone to care for him. Another case of a mentally disabled young girl left to fend for herself disappeared from the internet overnight. The government promised there would be investigations, but did nothing to make sure it could not happen again.

While compassionate community members often step up to watch over these children, some have already become orphans. Because of Chinese President Xi Jinping's crackdown on foreign NGOs, and because no safety net has been established for these children, they are often literally dependent on the kindness of strangers to survive.

Despite these dire circumstances, doctors and nurses are thankfully not seen as culprits. They too are victims. A doctor from the Wuhan Central Hospital said at least 1000 doctors and nurses had been infected. He declined to say how many had died.

The signs of traumatic shock have begun to appear among medical staff, including depression, anxiety, chronic exhaustion, fear, paranoia and acute loneliness. Reports of doctors unable to make simple decisions or nurses collapsing in wards have appeared on social media, later to disappear.

On January 30, nurse Lee (not her real name) wrote on Weibo that she had seen doctors give the wrong treatment to the wrong patients as a result of stress, anxiety and exhaustion. She wrote: "…people are dying because we are not able to cope. It is cruel for everyone."

A medical staff member collects a sample taken from a person to be tested for the new coronavirus at a quarantine zone in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak in China's central Hubei Province, on Feb. 4. AFP
A medical staff member collects a sample taken from a person to be tested for the new coronavirus at a quarantine zone in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak in China's central Hubei Province, on Feb. 4. AFP

The reality for medical staff is that their rote-style education does not prepare them to cope in crises, especially when patients' psychological care is critical. The medical journal "The Lancet" has reported that at the end of January the Wuhan government arranged for teams of mental healthcare workers to come into the hospital to help medical staff, but several leading psychologists feel this response is too little and far too late.

At almost every level of this crisis, there are untold stories, stories that belie the narrative being written by the CCP, and later promoted by the World Health Organization with a passion that is almost embarrassing.

These life-and-death, flesh-and-blood stories are outside the statistics. However, neither policies nor press can write them out of existence. Their lives, their struggles, their deaths must find a place in history, else we wait for history to repeat itself.


A resident wearing a protective mask and a plastic bag is seen outside a supermarket in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in China's central Hubei Province. AFP
A resident wearing a protective mask and a plastic bag is seen outside a supermarket in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in China's central Hubei Province. AFP

By Amanda Price

A Twitter post left for the World Health Organization regarding coronavirus victims read: "Remember, these are not numbers, but real people. Unfortunately, there are still some people who are not included, and their life and death stories are outside the statistics."

If you run an internet search on any aspect of the coronavirus, you will find countless web pages replete with statistics. The South China Morning Post publishes a running tally alongside almost every article on the subject. If you want more a more reliable source, the "Worldometer" website provides figures that are updated in real time.

Numbers seem to have a power over us. We feel safe if they are single digit, concern when they are double, and panic when they become triple. It is part of our survival instinct, part of our highly globalized sensitivity to impending danger. We not only have statistics almost as soon as they are counted, we now know what they mean as well.

In these dense forests of facts and figures, it is hard to see the people for the data. Human beings hidden behind numbers are less likely to cause international outrage. Figures can be fudged, but faces are harder to forget.

Countless experts and analysts have claimed that the Chinese government is providing us with "an inadequate picture" of what's really happening at ground zero.

John Edmunds, an analysis professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told Reuters: "We have a very incomplete picture of what's going on. Whether it's incompetence, secrecy or deliberate". Edmunds explained that the unverified data that China provided made it impossible to progress at the pace that the crisis demanded.

Medical staff collapsing from trauma, family members searching for loved ones who suspiciously disappeared and terrified children left behind with strangers are missing from the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) narrative. But even with a manipulated narrative, what we hear is distressing.

Independent Chinese journalists, foreign press and social media activists squeeze out as much information as they can, at least until they are traced and their work disappears. From the scraps that we have, a picture emerges that contradicts official reports.

Within cities quarantined, the spread of the coronavirus was somewhat curtailed. However, in the wake of the virus a new illness has spread ― fear.

Residents interviewed by journalists from Reuters and Caijing claim their primary fear is no longer catching the coronavirus, but whether they are able to receive treatment.

Between the sick and treatment is an almost impenetrable wall built by years of autocracy and officialdom. Residents report that because of complex and sequential reporting systems, involving district managers, city officials and disease control authorities, it is now commonplace to be denied treatment for trying to take a short cut through the maze of protocol. And being at death's door does not make you an exception.

To qualify for any tests, certain rigid criteria must be met by all potential patients. This process is exhausting, the paperwork seems endless, but residents have begun to suspect that there are two factors that create this "death by bureaucracy". The first is the unprecedented spread of the virus and the inadequacy of resources; the second is that a dead person is one less person that needs attention.

As if this were not enough, residents have reported that even when they have fought their way inside a hospital, they have been turned away because their symptoms were not "severe enough".

As one resident reported, "severe symptoms means you are dying, otherwise you do not qualify. But if you are too close to death or too old to survive, they may give you oxygen and tell you to self-quarantine. It's not the doctor's fault, but only the ones in between get a bed. Then they (officials) count beds, not the people sent away."

Tong Yixuan's father was drifting in and out of consciousness due to his febrile state. He was able to get into a hospital where doctors said it was almost certainly the coronavirus. He was sent to another ward but was told there was no bed for him and, as he could still breath without aid, his symptoms were not severe enough. Tong was told to take his father home and keep him isolated.

Staff in protective clothing distribute food to patients that were quarantined in a hotel in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, Feb. 5. EPA
Staff in protective clothing distribute food to patients that were quarantined in a hotel in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, Feb. 5. EPA

The information that the CCP does not release is that a proportion of citizens are, literally, dying while their relatives beg authorities to test them and, if they are lucky, treat them as well. Many residents say that getting healthcare for themselves or their families, at even the most basic level, is becoming an impossible quest. Others have said "it is like winning the lottery."

Lim began to feel unwell on January 24 and subsequently collapsed on the street. He was 80. He found his way to a district clinic where, despite being feverish, he was told he would have to go to a larger hospital that had more equipment. He waited, with his daughter, over five hours to see a doctor who said he would need to wait for six hours before scans could be done.

Lim was shivering with fever, so his daughter took him home. Waiting for hours the following morning, Lim was finally taken in for a scan. Tests could not be done that day as they had run out of kits, but his daughter was told his scans showed both lungs were severely infected.

They were told to go to the emergency room where he waited another six hours. The next day, the same hospital told Lim they had no bed for him and he would have to try another hospital.

After being turned away from two more hospitals, Lim could not breathe, so his daughter called an ambulance, only to be told that, without official documentation from the hospital, they could not come. Lim died from the virus for lack of a piece of paper.

Residents have reported that every day they nervously wait for the sound of vans arriving to collect those who've died in their homes. There are no autopsies. Bodies are immediately taken to the crematorium where ashes remain until relatives pick them up.

Lim was fortunate, he had a daughter to care for him. But there are many less fortunate, and if they get sick, there may be no one to wait with them, no one to plead their case, no one to notice that they are no longer there.

None of these people's deaths will be recorded by authorities among the tally of victims. These were the coronavirus victims who died because they were unable to sit for hour upon hour, or day after day, or make the arduous journey from hospital to hospital.

But the elderly are far from the only ones with stories like Lim.

Seeping through cracks in the great firewall of China are countless stories of far younger individuals waiting for days as their symptoms worsened and their infection spread. Student Xiping, 28, was turned away from six hospitals and refused treatment for want of a piece of paper that no one had time to give him.

Tragedy does not belong only to the sick. Children, though less often infected, become a new level of victims of the virus when their parents or guardians are found to be infected. Stories of children and toddlers left with neighbors, or placed into wards all alone because they have no one to care for them, have sprung up on the internet.

One of these stories made headlines when a boy with advanced cerebral palsy was left to die despite his father, who was infected, pleading for someone to care for him. Another case of a mentally disabled young girl left to fend for herself disappeared from the internet overnight. The government promised there would be investigations, but did nothing to make sure it could not happen again.

While compassionate community members often step up to watch over these children, some have already become orphans. Because of Chinese President Xi Jinping's crackdown on foreign NGOs, and because no safety net has been established for these children, they are often literally dependent on the kindness of strangers to survive.

Despite these dire circumstances, doctors and nurses are thankfully not seen as culprits. They too are victims. A doctor from the Wuhan Central Hospital said at least 1000 doctors and nurses had been infected. He declined to say how many had died.

The signs of traumatic shock have begun to appear among medical staff, including depression, anxiety, chronic exhaustion, fear, paranoia and acute loneliness. Reports of doctors unable to make simple decisions or nurses collapsing in wards have appeared on social media, later to disappear.

On January 30, nurse Lee (not her real name) wrote on Weibo that she had seen doctors give the wrong treatment to the wrong patients as a result of stress, anxiety and exhaustion. She wrote: "…people are dying because we are not able to cope. It is cruel for everyone."

A medical staff member collects a sample taken from a person to be tested for the new coronavirus at a quarantine zone in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak in China's central Hubei Province, on Feb. 4. AFP
A medical staff member collects a sample taken from a person to be tested for the new coronavirus at a quarantine zone in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak in China's central Hubei Province, on Feb. 4. AFP

The reality for medical staff is that their rote-style education does not prepare them to cope in crises, especially when patients' psychological care is critical. The medical journal "The Lancet" has reported that at the end of January the Wuhan government arranged for teams of mental healthcare workers to come into the hospital to help medical staff, but several leading psychologists feel this response is too little and far too late.

At almost every level of this crisis, there are untold stories, stories that belie the narrative being written by the CCP, and later promoted by the World Health Organization with a passion that is almost embarrassing.

These life-and-death, flesh-and-blood stories are outside the statistics. However, neither policies nor press can write them out of existence. Their lives, their struggles, their deaths must find a place in history, else we wait for history to repeat itself.




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