February 9, 2023

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Elderly Covid patients fill hospital wards in China’s major cities

This image shows Covid-19 patients on stretchers at the emergency room of Chongqing Medical University’s First Affiliated Hospital in China’s southwestern city of Chongqing on December 22, 2022. (Photo by Noel Celis / AFP)

by Laurie CHEN and Vivian LIN in Shanghai
Agence France-Presse

CHONGQING, China (AFP) – Elderly patients lined the wards of hospitals in major cities in China on Thursday as the country battled a wave of Covid cases.

The virus is spreading in an outbreak across the vast Asian nation that authorities say is impossible to trace after mandatory mass testing ends.

And amid rising cases, Washington has urged Beijing to share its Covid outbreak data, saying China’s case count is having an impact on the world.

Attached to a breathing tube under a pile of blankets, an old man stricken with Covid-19 lay moaning on a stretcher in the emergency room of a hospital in central China.

A paramedic from Chongqing Medical University’s First Affiliated Hospital, who confirmed the old man was a Covid patient, said he picked up more than 10 people a day, 80 to 90 percent of whom were infected with coronavirus.

“Most of them are elderly,” he said.

“Many hospital staff are also positive, but we have no choice but to keep working.”

The old man waited half an hour for treatment while AFP saw six other people in hospital beds in a nearby room, surrounded by harried doctors and relatives.

They, too, were mostly elderly and when asked if they were all Covid patients, one doctor said: “Basically.”

Five were strapped to breathing apparatus and appeared to be having trouble breathing.

Millions of elderly people across China are still not fully vaccinated, raising concerns that the virus could kill the most vulnerable citizens in large numbers.

However, under new government guidelines, many of these deaths would not be attributed to Covid.

In Shanghai, the corridors of an emergency room were lined with stretchers carrying elderly people hooked up to oxygen tanks.

An AFP reporter counted at least 15 such patients pouring from the wards into the corridor, some with suitcases next to their trolleys.

Wrapped in brightly colored blankets, they panted weakly through their masks as medical staff tended to them. Many seemed largely unresponsive.

– ‘Constantly busy’ –
As Beijing scrambles to contain the outbreak, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday urged China to share information about its Covid crisis, while Washington renewed an offer to share American vaccines.

“For all countries, including China, it’s very important to focus on getting people vaccinated, making tests and treatments available, and most importantly sharing information with the world about what they’re experiencing – because it’s not just impacting China , but for the whole world,” said Blinken at a press conference.

A long line of cars waited in front of a large crematorium on the rural outskirts of Chongqing on Thursday for on-site parking spaces.

Dozens of bereaved relatives walked in groups, some carrying wooden urns, while funeral gongs rang and mourners burned incense.

A middle-aged man carrying an urn told AFP an elderly relative had died after testing positive for the virus.

“It’s been busy lately,” said a crematorium driver as he sat smoking in his car.

“We work more than 10 hours a day with few breaks.”

Another employee, wearing a face shield, agreed.

“It’s not possible to refrigerate bodies, they have to be cremated the same day,” he said.

Around 20 hearses lined the road to another crematorium in the south of the city on Thursday evening.

Inside was a large car park where bodies were unloaded on stretchers onto a small raised platform before being transported to the upper floors.

AFP saw about 40 bodies loaded onto the platform in two hours.

Next to the raised level were two cold rooms with freezers. In one, AFP saw two covered bodies on stretchers and another partially uncovered body on the ground.

Police and security forces patrolled the site.

– “He died too quickly” –
A steady stream of cars carrying mourners arrived at a separate building where families were holding wakes.

Some relatives watched through glass as their loved ones were cremated in adjacent rooms.

A woman in her 20s told AFP she suspects her father may have died of Covid despite not having been tested.

“He died too soon on the way to the hospital,” she sobbed. “He initially had lung problems … He was only 69.”

Another mourner said his relative died of pneumonia, although they weren’t sure if it was caused by Covid.

“He wasn’t feeling well, so we took him to the clinic the day before yesterday – the hospital wouldn’t take him,” he said.

A woman said her elderly relative, who was suffering from cold symptoms, tested negative but died after being unable to get an ambulance in time.

© Agence France-Presse