Explained: How China’s sudden switch from zero-COVID policy has burdened its hospitals

China’s sudden easing of its strict COVID-19 curbs has bared the shortcomings of its hospitals amid a surge in cases.

Beijing, China’s capital city, has witnessed staff shortages in its hospitals and clinics as several workers have been infected, and many people even with moderate symptoms are flocking to these facilities.

As per the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post newspaper, the city reported 1,027 coronavirus cases on Tuesday (13 December). However, the real figures are expected to be higher after the mandatory testing rule was withdrawn.

Meanwhile, cases are likely to remain undercounted as China declared it would not count asymptomatic infections since they’ve become “impossible” to track.

What problems is China staring at after easing its zero-COVID policy? What do experts say? Let’s understand.

Hospitals’ woes

Staff shortages at hospitals have become common in Beijing as many healthcare workers tested positive.

As per BBC, medical workers have been asked to turn up even if they have coronavirus due to the shortage of workers.

“People who’ve been infected have been required to work in the hospitals which creates a transmission environment there,” Chen Xi, a Chinese professor specialising in health policy, told BBC.

Moreover, non-emergency surgery has been shut down in some facilities.

“The rapid development of the epidemic has led to greater pressure on health services in the short term,” Li Ang, deputy director of Beijing’s health commission, admitted, as per South China Morning Post.

Due to the huge influx of people, health officials in China are urging people with mild COVID-19 symptoms to stay at home.

Explained How Chinas sudden switch from zeroCOVID policy has burdened its hospitals

People are lining up outside fever clinics in China. AP

“Our hospital is overwhelmed with patients. There are 700, 800 people with fever coming every day,” a doctor at a tertiary hospital in Sichuan province said, as per Reuters.

Li also expressed concern that more healthcare staff could be infected soon.

“We are running out of medicine stocks for fever and cold, now waiting for delivery from our suppliers. A few nurses at the fever clinic were tested positive, there aren’t any special protective measures for hospital staff and I believe many of us will soon get infected,” he further stated.

A notice on the pharmacy window of Haidian Hospital in western Beijing read that “all pharmacists on duty are sick – please bear with us”, reported South China Morning Post.

“A lot of doctors are sick with COVID-19 as well but have to report for duty because otherwise the hospital cannot open, which is not an option,” an administrator told the newspaper, on the condition of anonymity.

As per the health officials, even though cases are rising, most of them are mild or asymptomatic.

A nurse at a hospital in Chengdu said, “I was swamped with nearly 200 patients with COVID symptoms last night”, as per Reuters.

A virus testing facility in Runfeng Shuishang, Beijing, was closed after all its employees were detected with COVID, the neighbourhood government said Saturday on social media, asking people to be “patient”, reported Associated Press (AP).

A pharmaceutical sales representative told Reuters that many doctors in Wuhan province’s top public hospital Tongji have been infected but have “not been allowed to take leave”.

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Scarcity of medicines

BBC has reported that people thronging pharmacies has led to a nationwide dearth of medicine for colds or flu.

Home testing kits for COVID-19 are also not easy to find.

As people do not have drugs to treat fever, they are lining outside fever wards, or even calling an ambulance, reported South China Morning Post.

Explained How Chinas sudden switch from zeroCOVID policy has burdened its hospitals

Fever and flu medicines are also seeing shortages. AP

AP noted that people are waiting in queues for up to six hours to get into fever clinics.

Hospitals in the country have ramped up the capacity of fever wards, but even they are getting filled quickly, partly because people do not fully understand that they can stay at home even after testing positive, according to BBC.

“There is no culture of staying at home for minor symptoms,” professor Chen said.

“When people feel sick they all go to hospitals, which may easily crash the healthcare system” he was quoted as saying by BBC.

This has prompted health officials, as well as state media, to urge people not to worry unless they are “seriously ill”.

Patients with milder symtoms have been told to remain at home instead of calling for an ambulance, as per the Hong Kong-based newspaper.

ALSO READ: A Brush with Revolution: How ‘Teacher Li’ brought China’s COVID protests to the limelight

More strain on hospitals likely

Zhang Wenhong, an infectious diseases specialist with Shanghai’s Huashan Hospital, has cautioned that the first wave post zero-Covid could infect a large number of healthcare workers and put a burden on medical facilities.

“We should do everything we can to delay infection in the older age groups and minimise the number of elderly people infected at the peak of the first wave of the epidemic,” Zhang wrote on his team’s WeChat account, as per South China Morning Post.

Last week, China called for establishing more intensive care facilities, strengthening hospitals as well as increasing drug supplies.

Shaanxi province has 22,000 hospital beds for COVID-19 and can convert other beds to ramp up its intensive care capacity by 20 per cent, the Shanghai news outlet The Paper said, as per an AP report.

Jiao Yahui, the general director of Bureau of Medical Administration of the National Health Commission, had said earlier that the Asian giant has 1,38,000 intensive care beds – that is less than one for every 10,000 people, the report added.

Experts have warned that the ruling Communist Party may revert to a harsh zero-COVID strategy if hospitals continue to be overwhelmed, said AP.

With inputs from agencies

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