The explosive spread of a virus in China’s Hubei province has now killed more than 2,900 people. But that death toll doesn’t include Fang Heshun. And the list of the sick – more than 80,000 confirmed cases with COVID-19 in the province – doesn’t include Chen Guangcai, Wang Bin or Gong Qunxin.
Each confronted serious illness: cancer, leukemia, a tumour. And each has struggled to get care as health authorities converted hospitals, hotels, stadiums and conference centres to respond to the virus, leaving little room for people needing other forms of medical intervention.
Even now, as authorities in China claim partial victory over the virus – sending people back to work, releasing plans for the reopening of schools, releasing numbers that show a slowing in new virus cases – many of the seriously sick in Wuhan have been unable to find hospital beds. Some have died.
The stresses on health provision in China stand as a warning to other parts of the world, where the sudden expansion of the outbreak in South Korea, Japan, Iran, Italy and elsewhere has begun to pinch health-care systems. Epidemiologists have warned that the speed with which COVID-19 can spread means that the best response requires a rapid allocation of health-care resources.
In Wuhan, at the epicentre of the virus, that has meant dedicating hospitals to the outbreak and evicting those already admitted for other purposes. In recent days, Hubei, the province where Wuhan is the capital, has seen a decline in numbers of new cases, and governments have ordered more attention be paid to patients with other illnesses.
Yet even those who have successfully petitioned for help have struggled to get suitable care from the overburdened health-care system.
Doctors diagnosed Fang Heshun with kidney cancer in 2018. But in October, 2019, he felt discomfort. Doctors discovered that tumours had spread into his lungs and his brain and began radiation therapy at Tongji Hospital, a university-affiliated institution that is one of the best in Wuhan. He was scheduled for another treatment Jan. 31.
But with the virus outbreak, they could not access care at Tongji. Mr. Fang was sent instead to Hanyang Hospital, a local institution that could administer medicine but not radiation.
”Before he went to Hanyang, he could walk, talk and eat. But after just one week, he was half-paralyzed,” his daughter, Fang Fang, said. Desperate for help, she posted information on the Twitter-like Weibo service about his case. Hours later, members of her parents’ community committee – part of China’s government system of local control – reached out to offer help. They got in touch with higher levels of government, and city health-committee representatives responded.
But, they said, with the continued virus outbreak, some of Tongji’s own doctors were in isolation. Her husband, too, contracted COVID-19 when he went to the hospital to buy medicine for her father. Ms. Fang and her mother-in-law were then infected. They’re now living in isolation.
And Mr. Fang died Feb. 25.
His daughter says she believes another round of radiation could have extended his life. “The disease is serious, so we never expected another five or 10 years. But if all of this hadn’t happened, he should have lived at least another year or two. The tumour wouldn’t have developed this fast,” Ms. Fang said.
His death, she said, was “too fast, faster than the withering of a flower.”
Others have been left to their own resources. In Xiaogan, a city in Hubei, Gong Qunxin needs white blood cell reduction apheresis, a specialized leukemia treatment that is available only in Wuhan, about 50 kilometres away. “The doctor said his condition is ‘dangerous and urgent,’ ” said Wen Wei, the sister-in-law of Mr. Gong’s son.
The hospital in Xiaogan offered the family a pass to drive on locked-down roads and a medical transfer authorization. But they “made it clear to us that instead of putting all of our hope in them, we could use our own resources and networks to get beds in more professional hospitals,” Ms. Wen said.
For most of the week, the family had no success. They made hundreds of calls, but found out only through friends that Wuhan hospitals won’t accept Mr. Gong. The hospitals themselves had no response. (The Globe and Mail called Tongji 10 times Friday, but no one answered). Meanwhile, Mr. Gong’s son walked two hours to the hospital to see him, since local transit is not operating.
Then, on Wednesday night, the family found another hospital in Wuhan willing to take Mr. Gong. With no beds, however, he spent his first night in a hallway. By Friday night, he had been placed in a ward – but in isolation, because even though a test for COVID-19 came back negative, he had previously run a fever. The family continues to fear for his health.
“I can’t say that I blame everything on government incompetence or a disparity in the allocation of medical resources. There’s nothing wrong with hospitals prioritizing the needs of coronavirus patients,” Ms. Wen said. “Sacrifice the small families for the sake of the bigger ones – that I can understand. But a life is a life. And even if my uncle is just one person, it doesn’t mean his life isn’t worth saving.”
Chen Zheling, too, has struggled to find proper medical care for his father, Chen Guangcai, who has been diagnosed with high bilirubin levels, although doctors have yet to confirm the cause. Mr. Chen’s wife is a nurse. His father worked in virus response. He himself is part of a local work squad securing food and necessities for the community.
They found a place for his father in a local hospital, which is “helping him stay alive.” But Mr. Chen has little hope of getting his father into a more sophisticated care facility in Wuhan.
“I just feel so hopeless, like the world has closed the windows in front of me and I can find no way in,” he said. “When you try everything, but keep being rejected, you will know what it feels like to have no place to go. That’s a feeling I’ve never experienced.”
For others, virus fears have denied treatment to people who exhibit symptoms common to COVID-19. Wang Bin is in an advanced stage of liver cancer that has left him feverish. His lungs, too, have shown signs of infection, an indication of the ravages of cancer. His temperature has been normal since November. It’s “not a coronavirus infection. Yet the hospital kicked us out because they said no one with any lung infection could be allowed in,” said Wang Cheng, his son.
Since then, Wang Bin’s health has been unstable. Earlier this week, he became unresponsive for a few hours, mumbling and slipping in and out of consciousness at home. His family can do little but hope that he will, with the help of pills they have purchased through an app, survive the outbreak.
“I can say that the coronavirus in Wuhan has without a doubt made things worse for my family. Because of the lack of effective treatment, you can say that my father is fighting against cancer with his weakened body,” Wang Cheng said. But compared with other cancer patients, his father “is lucky, because he is still alive.”
With reports from Alexandra Li