Coronavirus anger boils over in China and doctors plead for supplies

Chris Buckley and Amy Qin, The New York Times

Posted at Jan 31 2020 09:01 AM

Coronavirus anger boils over in China and doctors plead for supplies 1
Medical staff in protective suits treat a patient with pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus at the Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China Jan. 28, 2020. China Daily/Reuters

WUHAN, China — One week into a lockdown, anger and anxiety deepened in China on Thursday as the central province at the center of the coronavirus outbreak endured shortages of hospital beds, medical supplies and doctors.

In a sign of growing frustration, a relative of a patient infected with the virus beat up a doctor at a hospital in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, the state broadcaster CCTV reported on Thursday, citing the police. The man was accused of pulling and damaging the doctor’s mask and protective clothing — potentially exposing him to the virus — after his father-in-law died in the hospital. The man was later detained.

At the same time, hospitals in the region renewed pleas to the public for help to replenish their supplies, which were fast disappearing. The shortages have become especially severe in Huanggang, a city of 7 million not far from Wuhan, where some medical staff members were wearing raincoats and garbage bags as shoe covers to protect against infection, according to Yicai, a financial news site.

Amid growing unease, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency, which acknowledges that the disease now represents a risk beyond China. Nations can then decide whether to shut their borders, cancel flights or screen people arriving at ports of entry.

Also on Thursday, Chinese government agencies announced plans to issue subsidies of up to $43 per day to front-line medical workers and to reopen factories to boost production of medical supplies and protective gear.

“We absolutely cannot let Huanggang become a second Wuhan,” Wang Xiaodong, the governor of Hubei province, said at a news briefing Wednesday.

On Thursday evening, provincial leaders said at a news briefing that the director of Huanggang’s health committee had been fired.

For many Chinese, such decisive government announcements are too little, too late. Concerns have grown as the death toll from the coronavirus has quickly ticked upward, rising by 38 to hit 170 on Thursday. All but one of those recent deaths have occurred in Hubei province; the other died in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

Fueling the anger on Thursday was the publication this week of a new paper about the coronavirus in The New England Journal of Medicine by a team of researchers affiliated with, among other places, the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Hubei Provincial Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drawing on data from the first 425 confirmed cases in Wuhan, the paper states that “there is evidence that human-to-human transmission has occurred among close contacts since the middle of December 2019.”

Chinese people online were incensed, asking why the government had waited until Jan. 20 to inform the public that the virus was capable of being transmitted from human to human. By Thursday evening, many had seized on the paper as evidence that the authors had purposely withheld valuable information out of academic self-interest.

“I’m about to explode, I need an explanation from the authors!!!!” Wang Liming, a professor at Zhejiang University, wrote in a widely shared social media post that was quickly deleted. “As a researcher with firsthand information, you knew that the virus could be transmitted between humans three weeks before the public did. Did you do what you were supposed to do?”

As China raced to contain the outbreak, countries grappled with how to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan and how to stop the virus from spreading.

Australia announced a plan to evacuate its citizens in Wuhan to Christmas Island, which has played an important but checkered role in the country’s contentious use of faraway sites to house refugees and other migrants. The announcement drew immediate questions over the implications of using the island as a quarantine site.

Moving people to Christmas Island is not an “appropriate solution,” Dr. Tony Bartone, the president of the Australian Medical Association, said in a television news interview. He said the government had other, more suitable facilities, such as military sites.

In Japan, a furor erupted over the refusal of some evacuees who had returned to submit to medical testing.

Two of the Japanese citizens who have been evacuated from Wuhan refused to be tested for the coronavirus, leading the prime minister to explain that citizens could not be forced to submit to a medical examination.

Japanese social media users said the travelers, who arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday, were putting the country at risk. Some called them terrorists.

“We tried to persuade the two returnees from Wuhan for many hours” to be tested, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in Parliament on Thursday, when asked about the government’s treatment of repatriated citizens. “But there is no legally binding force, and that’s a great regret,” Abe said.

Russia ordered 16 of its approximately 25 crossing points on its 2,600-mile border Chinese border to be closed as of midnight local time as fears about the coronavirus outbreak mounted in Moscow.

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Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin chairs a meeting with his deputies in Moscow, Russia January 27, 2020. Sputnik/Alexander Astafyev/Pool via Reuters

“We have to do everything to protect our people,” Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said on Thursday in televised remarks at a Cabinet meeting.

Italy blocked thousands of people from leaving a cruise ship that docked on Thursday at an Italian port, over concerns that someone aboard might have the virus. Although a Chinese national with a fever later tested negative for the coronavirus and the Italian authorities said passengers were allowed to disembark, for much of the day the country was gripped by fears that the coronavirus had arrived on its shores.

That concern proved warranted later Thursday, when the government reported the country’s first two confirmed cases, neither of which were related to the ship.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also announced that Italy had halted all flights to and from China.

In the United States, health officials on Thursday reported the first case of person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus in the United States. The patient is the husband of a woman who returned from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the virus, and was the first reported case in Chicago, officials said at a news briefing.

The U.S. commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, said the United States could see a positive byproduct from China’s woes because the outbreak could prompt employers to move jobs to its shores.

“I don’t want to talk about a victory lap over a very unfortunate, very malignant disease,” Ross said in an interview on Fox Business. “I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America. Some to the U.S., probably some to Mexico as well.”

His remarks may be seen as insensitive to a country in crisis, and he has faced such criticism in the past. During the government shutdown in early 2019, Ross suggested that furloughed workers should take out loans while they went without pay for more than a month.

With the evacuations and lockdown, Wuhan, a typically bustling metropolis, has been transformed into a ghost town. Since the city was effectively sealed off last week, most shops have shut down. The city government has put restrictions on traffic. The lack of transportation options has made it difficult for medical workers and sick residents to get to hospitals.

But most residents of Wuhan are not leaving their homes because they are too scared of catching the virus.

“Local Wuhan residents who aren’t worried about being sick aren’t even going on the streets,” Chen Qiushi, a Beijing-based lawyer and citizen journalist who has been in Wuhan since the lockdown began, said in a video blog posted on Thursday. “The locals are all very scared,” he added. “I’m starting to get scared.”

When Wuhan residents step outside, it’s mostly to go to the supermarkets, food stores and pharmacies that stay open as part of a government effort to sustain the city. Senior officials have promised that residents need not worry about vegetables, fruit or other staples.

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A general view outside of a shopping mall in Wuhan, Hubei province, China January 25, 2020 in this still image taken from video. Jovis and Marissa via Reuters

While Wuhan residents have been able to buy food, some complained about price increases or expressed fear that a prolonged shutdown might choke off food supplies. And if the shutdown lasts weeks longer, with the rest of China also scrambling to secure food supplies, it could make things more serious, several residents said.

“If we can’t bring in produce, it will become more expensive, or we might even have to close up,” said Zuo Qichao, who was selling piles of cucumbers, turnips and tomatoes. As he spoke, a woman accused him of unfairly raising the turnips’ price.

“Every county, every village around here is now putting up barriers, worried about that disease,” Zuo said. “Even if the government says it wants food guaranteed, it won’t be easy — all those road checks.”

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