Emergency room

Media celebrates new hospitals, netizens less so


One of Wuhan’s new hospitals

Watching a hospital being built – however rapidly – wouldn’t generally be seen as a spectator sport in normal situations.

But when you are cooped up in your family apartment sheltering from a new and deadly virus, things take on a new significance.

Which is why tens of millions of people tuned in to watch the live feed of two huge hospitals being built at a frantic rate in Wuhan – the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The broadcast’s feeds – hosted by state channel CCTV – became so popular that viewers began giving the diggers and bulldozers their own nicknames. A favourite cement mixer was dubbed the “Big Roller” and a flatbed truck hauling heavy construction supplies was “Brother Red Bull”.

CCTV utilised an app to offer cartoon depictions of the vehicles so people could vote for their favourites. The outright winners were the little yellow forklift trucks which zoomed about the busy sites like determined bees.

But what for some was a heartening symbol of the nation’s all-out resolve to defeat the virus was for others a sign of how the authorities had been woefully slow to react to the epidemic in its early stages.

“If this government had taken action earlier this wouldn’t be necessary,” fumed one angry weibo user. “Only in China” was another common refrain. Short form for: “Only in China can we build a thousand-bed hospital in 10 days, but only in China do we ever need to.”

As readers will know, eight healthcare workers had tried to draw attention to the virus long before the authorities formally recognised the outbreak, but they were reprimanded and made to sign statements of self-criticism by Hubei police.

Just under a month later, on January 23, the Wuhan government announced the construction of Huoshenshan – a thousand-bed hospital on the banks of Zhiyin Lake. A day later it announced the building of Leishenshan – another huge hospital that was later enlarged to 1,600 beds – all built within 11 days.

The speed of construction has been impressive. The two facilities aren’t field hospitals but solid, well-equipped structures made from prefabricated panels. Inside they feature air filtration systems, high-speed data sharing and on-site labs. On completion Huoshenshan was transferred to the control of the People’s Liberation Army, which provided 1,400 medical personnel to staff it. Leishenshan is run by civilian doctors, the majority of whom were dispatched from Liaoning province.

Unsurprisingly, the state media was keen to pick out the positives in the situation. Xinhua described the rapid emergence of the hospitals as a “miracle”, while the People’s Daily celebrated the “indestructible and indomitable spirit of the Chinese people”. It added that the coronavirus emergency was demonstrating the “strength of China’s national governance system” and that “no other country is able to react so efficiently”. It added: “China’s institutional advantages shine at such critical moments.”

Of course, China’s existing healthcare system is generally overstretched, even in ordinary circumstances. As WiC has pointed out before, the country is chronically short of doctors, nurses, midwives and anaesthesiologists. The way that its primary healthcare system is organised, most people go to hospitals if they are sick rather than a clinic. Indeed, such is the overcrowding in Wuhan’s hospitals that they became major sources of infection. A study of 138 corona-virus patients published by the Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University last week found that 41% of patients had actually contracted the disease as a result of “human-to-human hospital-associated transmission”. Some victims were medical workers, others were patients recovering from surgery or receiving treatment for cancer.

Meanwhile other netizens were shocked when several hospitals in Hubei province had to put out an emergency call over the internet for basic equipment such as masks and protective clothing.

“This is another reason young people don’t want to study medicine,” said one critic, referencing the low pay as well the risks of being stabbed that the medical profession can face even in ordinary circumstances (see WiC478).

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