Public Outcry Over Medical Treatment Delays During Shanghai Lockdown

Shanghai has extended a city-wide lockdown amid the worst COVID-19 outbreak in two years amid growing anger at quarantine rules. With 311 symptomatic and 16,766 asymptomatic cases reported on Tuesday, the megacity of 26 million residents is scrambling to contain the Omicron variant in accordance with the strict national zero-COVID policy. Meanwhile, patients who have chronic conditions or require long-term care are suffering from lack of treatment due to the government’s intense focus on containing the coronavirus.

A viral essay circulating on Chinese social media this week chronicles the death of a woman in a rehabilitation facility in Shanghai. The patient is identified as Li Chang, a Tsinghua University alumna and a mother of two, who required round-the-clock care following a brain hemorrhage last year. According to posts widely shared on social media, her care workers were forced to quarantine in late March after some individuals at the facility tested positive for COVID-19. Her family members were prohibited from attending to her needs, and she died a few days later due to lack of care. Xu Liyuan, a writer and former journalist, mourned Li Chang’s death in a now-deleted essay posted to her WeChat blog (“一只猫的折叠花筒,” ID: castoisacat2063):

In the past two years, we were pleased to witness the great victory of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of new COVID-19 deaths in mainland China has been kept at zero. However, we cannot ignore the fact that many people were sacrificed in order to achieve that “zero.” Tsinghua alumna Li Chang is one such example. And she is far from the only one.

[…] There are thousands of lethal diseases in the world, and COVID-19 is just one of them. Please allow all patients to receive equal, and urgently-needed, medical treatment. [Chinese]

In a later update, Xu said that she deleted the article because Li’s family asked her not to write about their relative’s death. Also circulating online is a screenshot of a speech attributed to Li’s mother, sharing Li’s life achievements while expressing sadness and anger over her daughter’s tragic death:

We are saddened and aggrieved. With the COVID-19 epidemic raging for nearly three years, how can we still be so ill-prepared for emergency situations that cost the lives of innocent people? [Chinese]

As during previous lockdowns, Weibo is again being inundated with posts seeking help for those with chronic conditions, including people suffering from renal disease, tuberculosis, and cancer. Dxy.cn, an online platform for medical information, published a story about cancer patients under lockdown in Shanghai

On the evening of March 30, Xia Yi (pseudonym) took to Weibo to seek urgent help: her grandmother, who has breast cancer and needs chronic medication to control the disease, had just finished the last pill in her bottle.

[…] Xia Yi reached out to the hospital where her grandmother had been receiving treatment. Through personal connections, she got in touch with a friend who works there, only to be told that “the outpatient department has been converted to an ER. Non-emergency patients may not be able to get prescriptions filled by the hospital pharmacy.” Xia Yi then called the hospital and was told that it had stopped providing services for the foreseeable future.

Xia Yi subsequently contacted a hospital in Pudong that was reportedly still providing general medical services. However, the doctor told her that they were unable to issue a prescription for cancer medication, and that the hospital was not accepting new patients. 

Because [cancer] medications are subject to strict regulations, patients may only get them from a hospital. It is nearly impossible to buy them over the internet. Xia Yi had tried to use Health Cloud [a mobile app] to obtain prescriptions through a tele-appointment. However, the app informed her that she could not purchase medications unless she had visited a doctor within the past three months.

With both hospitals and tele-appointments out of reach, patients who require special medications are stuck in limbo. Existing regulations provide no guidance. Xia Yi sought help from the pandemic prevention hotline and was told that there was nothing they could do besides provide her with a permit that would allow her to go to the hospital.

[…] An even bigger problem is that after placing orders online, patients are unable to get their medications delivered on time.

E-commerce platforms and pharmaceutical companies that lack warehouses in Shanghai are experiencing difficulties shipping their medications across provincial lines. Xia Yi bought Exemestane [an estrogen-suppressing drug for breast cancer] on Meituan, but the drug had to be shipped in from another province. Because Shanghai is under lockdown, delivery services are not allowed to enter. Many patients reported that although they were able to purchase medications through hospitals or pharmacies, the deliveries were delayed. [Chinese]

A deleted post from Zhihu condemned the zero-COVID policy while mocking ultranationalists who cheer for strict quarantine measures: 

There are hundreds of thousands of cases in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Jilin. Counting both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases, how many people have died of the virus? Since you “Lockdown Enthusiasts” are so fond of invoking the protection of people’s lives to justify the policy, why don’t you tell me how many people have actually died of COVID-19 during this new wave? What’s the ratio? Out of hundreds of thousands of cases, how many have died? Give me a number, please!

Meanwhile, some people are jumping to their deaths, others are being denied treatment, and medical staff are dying of exhaustion. Just because someone else treats you like a fool doesn’t mean you have to actually fool yourself. You should have refrained from using Weibo or reading Guancha.cn too much. Now that three years have passed, how come you’re still getting all your information from clickbait sites? [Chinese]

Despite angry posts on social media, Chinese news outlets have largely been silent on stories about the lack of medical treatment or medical system dysfunction during lockdown. Three weeks ago, a nurse at Shanghai East Hospital died of an asthma attack after being denied treatment at her own hospital. The story prompted thousands of angry comments online. Caixin, one of the very few Chinese news outlets to report the story, subsequently had its article deleted. (It remains available via Google cache.) Sixth Tone published, and then deleted, an article about poor working conditions for replacement orderlies at Shanghai’s Donghai Elderly Care Hospital. (The article is still available at archive.org.) The dearth of in-depth reporting means that similar incidents are often shared online via screenshots and videos whose authenticity is difficult to verify. Another now-deleted post by WeChat blog 喀秋莎来信 (ID: jzkqsh) reported that a doctor in Heilongjiang Province took his own life after being censured for performing surgery on a patient who was, unbeknownst to him, positive for COVID-19:

After the Spring Festival, [Doctor Shi Jun] performed surgery on a patient who came from Suifenhe city. The patient, who used her mother’s negative nucleic acid test report to check in at the hospital, carried and spread the coronavirus. 

Due to this one surgery, the county was reportedly placed under lockdown for more than a month, and three or four cases of COVID-19 were discovered.

[…] A group of people were subsequently punished. [Shi Jun], the chief physician, was held liable for the outbreak and interrogated for seven days.

Each interrogation session reportedly lasted four to five hours. Relevant personnel said that his actions had cost the county hundreds of millions of yuan, and they threatened to impose a harsh sentence on him.

He was also forced to undergo physical checkup in handcuffs and shackles in front of other doctors, much to his humiliation.

In a small town, a family consisting of a chief physician and a middle school teacher is a highly respected, decent family. Even in a traditional society, or in foreign countries, doctors, teachers, and lawyers are all decent, stable middle-class careers. 

[…] Yet decency and grace are what the Iron Fist hates the most. […] In their eyes, an elegant, educated person who adheres to science and reason rather than fanaticism is a challenge to their rule and hence must be eliminated.

In early 2020, Dr. Li [Wenliang] of Wuhan was admonished.

In early 2022, another doctor was rounded up for sentencing. 

The former died after contracting the virus; the latter took his own life.

We have been living in the same era. Nothing has changed. [Chinese]

A recent WeChat essay by the Signal News (Weixin ID: signalnews), which was quickly censored but has been republished by CDT Chinese, seems to provide further detail on the case of Dr. Shi Jun. The author argues that the surgical patient used her own nucleic acid test results, which were negative at the time; that Dr. Shi was a highly respected surgeon, essential to the neurosurgery department at his hospital; and that reports of his suicide have been heavily censored on the Chinese internet and social media.

Given the stress of this extended lockdown and serious shortages of food, medicines, and medical services, it is not surprising that emotions are running high. Two other lockdown stories from Shanghai have provoked an angry outcry, but for very different reasons. 

The first is a social media post from Shanghai’s Sixth People’s Hospital about a male foreigner, suffering from an erection that lasted more than fifty hours, who underwent a successful surgery at the hospital. Angry netizens demanded to know why, given the limited medical resources available during the pandemic, a priapic foreigner (nicknamed “Ding Ding Foreigner/Westerner” by commenters) would receive such preferential treatment. Not surprisingly, the incident also prompted some salty commentary and inspired limericks. CDT Chinese has republished an essay that details the uproar over the medically valid surgery, which occurred on March 2, before the worst of the Omicron outbreak. It also appears that the hospital’s post was part of a routine social media promotion of the work of its various medical departments, the urology department being but one of many.

The second story is more recent: the enormous public outcry over photos and video of a pet corgi beaten to death on a Shanghai street by a white-suited pandemic worker, after its owner was taken into quarantine. CDT Chinese has archived and republished two essays on the topic. In the first, “A Corgi Was Killed on the Streets of Shanghai,” the author recalls the kind companionship of pet dogs during their rural childhood, and contrasts it with the ruthless treatment of China’s urban pets during today’s pandemic lockdowns. The essay includes an apropos quote from Lu Xun: “When the brave are angry, they turn their swords on the stronger; when the cowardly are angry, they turn their swords on the weaker.” The second essay, “The Casual Killing of a Corgi,” provides a number of arguments against killing pets during the pandemic, pointing out that it is inhumane, unnecessary, and possibly illegal. The author also contrasts the treatment of cats and dogs in locked-down Shanghai with war-torn Ukraine, approvingly noting the affection with which Ukrainian citizens, refugees and soldiers treat their animal companions. The essay ends with this sentence: “In 2022, we cannot rely on laws, policies, or the kindness of others to protect our pets. We can only rely on ourselves.”

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