The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tales of anguish emerge from China’s locked-down Xian, as hospital staffers are fired over woman’s treatment

People get food from a temporary store for residents on a residential block in Xian, China, on Jan. 3. (Chinatopix/AP)
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On the first day of 2022, outside Xi’an Gaoxin Hospital, in the middle of China’s worst coronavirus outbreak since Wuhan, a woman eight months pregnant miscarried after being refused care until she had tested negative for the virus.

After feeling pain in her belly, the woman called an ambulance, according to an account from her niece posted Tuesday evening on the microblog Weibo. Without a negative coronavirus test, she had to wait outside emergency care for two hours until staffers relented when they saw that she was bleeding heavily.

But by then, the woman had miscarried, said the post from her niece, which was deleted after gaining nearly 6 million views. Neither woman was identified, and The Washington Post was unable to independently confirm details of the account.

The reported tragedy has tapped into mounting anguish and disbelief about dysfunction in Xian, the central Chinese city of 13 million that has imposed China’s strictest all-resident lockdown since Wuhan two years ago. Nearly 1,800 symptomatic infections have been confirmed in the city after the local government ordered mass testing and centralized quarantine to halt spread of the virus.

After an investigation by the local health commission, the Xi’an Gaoxin Hospital’s general manager was suspended and staff found directly responsible for the incident were fired, Xi’an government announced on Thursday. The hospital will also provide recovery treatment, compensation and a public apology, the commission said.

Locked down in China’s Xi’an amid coronavirus outbreak, residents subsist on deliveries of vegetables

As the rest of the world has become resigned to strategies of mitigating the virus, China has stuck fast to a policy of attempting to completely cut off transmission as soon as new outbreaks emerge, an approach it calls “dynamic zero covid.”

That whack-a-mole strategy has been largely effective. The Chinese Communist Party’s decision to make covid-19 prevention a top priority spurred local officials to impose rapid and severe — but relatively targeted — lockdowns whenever infections appeared. In the past year, even larger outbreaks were limited to a few hundred cases.

But the problems in Xi’an caused by the city’s poorly managed, containment-at-all-costs approach are raising alarm about unacceptable human distress when the unyielding policy goes wrong.

Residents, who are confined to their homes, already feared delayed or insufficient food deliveries in some areas of the city. They are now worried that hospitals, overwhelmed with coronavirus cases, are struggling to provide adequate care to non-coronavirus patients, a repeat of similar chaotic scenes in Wuhan nearly two years ago.

By Wednesday morning, the reported miscarriage had become one of the top trending topics on Weibo, as outraged users called for the hospital to take responsibility should it become clear that the delay caused the loss.

Countries are reopening borders. But China isn’t ready to live with the coronavirus.

“There are many uncertainties during the time of an epidemic, but making reasonable arrangements is the most important thing,” one user wrote, using a hashtag viewed 380 million times by midday Wednesday.

Dozens of similar cries for help have appeared on Chinese social media in recent days. Another case involved an HIV patient who had a fever of up to 105.8 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 days but was turned away from multiple hospitals. He eventually received care after his family’s post went viral.

In response to the outcry, Xi’an deputy Mayor Xu Mingfei told a news conference on Wednesday evening that the city would set up a “green pass” to ensure emergence care for critically ill patients. Normal patients still require a negative coronavirus test within the last 48 hours. “No hospital should use epidemic prevention as a reason to impact patient medical care,” Xu said.

On Tuesday, Jiang Xue, an independent journalist who previously worked for major outlets like Caixin Media, published an essay on her blog asking whether authorities had considered the implications for residents when they hit the “pause button” for an entire city.

She wrote about an exchange with a friend who applauded the official policy, declaring that Xian “must not retreat” in its fight against the virus. In response, Jiang forwarded a story about a daughter who lost her father to heart disease after he was refused hospital care because he was from a “medium risk” area of the city. “They should not have had to suffer this kind of pain,” Jiang said.

A city government decision on Sunday to place all close contacts of confirmed cases in centralized quarantine further disrupted the deliveries of food and everyday items. In some neighborhoods, workers of the committee responsible for handing out goods tested positive, meaning they, too, were placed in isolation.

“In any case, pretty much everyone is forcing a smile,” one Weibo user wrote about her family’s difficulties securing food.

In response to expressions of concern, state media outlets have promoted stories of communities banding together to see through the hard times. In one viral video, a long line of people pass plastic bags of groceries, like a bucket brigade, singing a well-known Mao-era song as they work: “Without the Communist Party, there would be no new China.”

But mistrust and frustration have undercut official attempts to put a positive spin on events. “If you tell me this is a normal mentality, I don’t quite believe it,” said a much-shared comment on the human chain video.

Online commentators began to talk of the failures of Xian’s response as a second crisis, no worse than that of the virus. “In today’s Xian, you can starve to death, can get sick and die, but you just cannot die of covid,” one wrote.

Lyric Li in Seoul, and Alicia Chen and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

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