Online cries for help in a Chinese city under coronavirus siege

Echo Xie

Access to medical care is still a lottery at the heart of a coronavirus outbreak in China, despite an influx of thousands of health workers and the construction of temporary hospitals in the beleaguered city of Wuhan.

Some patients and their relatives are so desperate that they have turned to social media in the hope that their cases will attract the attention of the authorities.

On Sina Weibo, one of the dominant social media platforms in China, the topic “pneumonia patients asking for help” had more than 1,608 posts, 1.38 billion views and 487,000 followers.

On Monday, a 30-year-old woman tagged the topic to a post in which she pleaded for help for her father, who had attempted suicide after contracting the illness.

The woman, who identified herself only as Zhang, said her father developed a fever on January 26 and was told that he had a lung infection on February 1.

Zhang said she tried everything to find a bed for her father – calling local communities, health bureaus, hospital fever wards and the mayor’s hotline – all to no avail.

On February 5, her father attempted suicide, she said.

“My dad could not bear it, so he cut his wrist that evening, but he was saved by my mum,” she said, adding that her father had multiple health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Under the weight of community pressure, the father was tested two days later. The results came back positive for the coronavirus but the hospital testing him could not admit him because it did not have enough beds.

Zhang said she pursued every lead she could to get a bed for her father, from adding his name to WeChat groups of patients needing help, to filling in patient forms from the State Council and the city newspaper.

“I’ve called every number I could find but they couldn’t solve the problem,” she said. “At last, I had no choice but to put a post on Weibo.”

She said she hesitated to do so in the beginning because her father’s situation was not severe and she did not want to attract too much attention.

But now things had changed. Zhang’s father is one of roughly 17,000 people confirmed with the coronavirus in the central Chinese city since the outbreak began in December.

Over the weekend, Jiang Chaoliang, the Communist Party chief of Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, pledged to expedite testing of a backlog of suspected cases and said that all confirmed cases or those who were seriously ill would have hospital beds.

On Monday night, Wuhan party chief Ma Guoqiang said that 1,499 confirmed patients in a severe conditions who were not admitted to hospital as of Saturday were admitted by noon on Monday. Wuhan was expected to clear the testing backlog on Tuesday, Ma said.

Last week, the city government also started checking online calls for help and setting up 24-hour consultation hotlines.

A 33-year-old woman surnamed Yuan said she also took to the internet to get help, posting both of her parents’ details on Weibo on Sunday. Yuan’s mother had already tested positive of the new coronavirus, while her father was found to have severe pneumonia.

They were admitted to hospitals on Monday.

“I tried so many ways [to get help] and I don’t know which one worked,” she said.

But for Zhang, only a miracle could help her father, who was still waiting for a bed.

“Most of the hospitals are admitting severe patients only,” Zhang said. “I don’t think my father can be treated.”

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