China’s countryside distraught in the face of the wave of Covid

Doctors exhausted by long working hours, unobtainable tests and medicines, ill-equipped clinics and facing an avalanche of patients: in Anhui province, one of the poorest in eastern China , the Covid hit hard.

Across the country, hospitals have seen an influx of patients after the surprise lifting of health restrictions by China in early December.

The situation is particularly critical in the countryside, where there is a chronic shortage of doctors, equipment and training. Admittedly, some of the inhabitants make long journeys to seek treatment in town, but the others do not necessarily have the means to travel and fall back on rural clinics.

When the Covid reached the province from mid-December, doctors in Anhui province soon found themselves without tests or medicines.

“Nobody could test themselves, so we didn’t know if we were positive or not,” said Shao, a resident of a village near Bengbu, a city of 3.3 million inhabitants.

At Bengbu station in eastern China’s Anhui province, January 5, 2023 (AFP – Noel Celis)

“It was a complete mess,” he says, before adding, “Things were better when the government kept us all locked down.”

A doctor says he had to work 14 hours a day in December when his village clinic, which has only two rooms, suddenly received up to 10 times more patients than normal.

The sick “had to queue outside” because the waiting room was full, explains this man.

– “Let’s protect ourselves” –

The head of a small health center in a neighboring town testified that drug stocks were “at their lowest, so we had to stop making prescriptions”.

Overwhelmed clinics have been ordered to no longer accept elderly patients with severe symptoms and refer them to city hospitals, he says.

A patient with Covid-19 at Fengyang hospital in eastern China's Anhui province, January 5, 2023 (AFP - Noel Celis)
A patient with Covid-19 at Fengyang hospital in eastern China’s Anhui province, January 5, 2023 (AFP – Noel Celis)

In a back room, a handful of patients on IVs huddle together at the end of a damp, dimly lit aisle. We see a few empty seats, a sign that the pressure has eased a little, at least for now.

But the situation remains tense in the city of Fengyang, where AFP journalists saw dozens of elderly Covid patients on drips in an observation room.

“Let’s not leave things to chance. Let’s protect ourselves” against the virus, proclaims a red and white banner hanging on the wall.

Testimonies are pouring in on an increase in deaths among the elderly.

“A lot of the older people in the village didn’t make it,” said Sun, a resident in his thirties.

– Rare masks –

The Chinese government last month restricted the classification of Covid deaths to those directly due to respiratory failure linked to the coronavirus.

Covid-19 patients at Fengyang hospital in eastern China's Anhui province, January 5, 2023 (AFP - Noel Celis)
Covid-19 patients at Fengyang hospital in eastern China’s Anhui province, January 5, 2023 (AFP – Noel Celis)

Result: since the beginning of December, in this country of 1.4 billion inhabitants, only a few dozen deaths have been attributed to the virus.

A village doctor says that in his area “about 50” elderly people have died since early December, most of whom already have other health problems such as diabetes or heart disease.

When questioned, the health authorities of Bengbu, on which the villages visited by AFP depend, did not give the number of deaths or cases locally.

Further north, in a village in Shandong province, residents play Chinese chess or tend goats. Masks are rare in this part of the country, usually little frequented by Western journalists.

But like everywhere in China, the virus is never far away. A sign in the street calls on people to “scientifically strengthen epidemic prevention and control”.

Covid-19 patients at Fengyang hospital in eastern China's Anhui province, January 5, 2023 (AFP - Noel Celis)
Covid-19 patients at Fengyang hospital in eastern China’s Anhui province, January 5, 2023 (AFP – Noel Celis)

In Xishan village, a woman in her 50s says she can’t wait for “all the young people to come back” on the occasion of the Lunar New Year (January 22 this year), even though it could trigger a new wave.

In Anhui province, a resident of about the same age does not share her enthusiasm. “We are really scared,” she says.

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