A series of deaths at a hospital for elderly patients in Shanghai is underscoring the consequences of China’s pursuit of a zero-COVID approach amid an escalating outbreak in the city of 26 million people.
- Chinese leaders insist the country’s zero-COVID approach is working, despite rising cases amid harsh lockdowns
- Only 62 per cent of Shanghai residents aged over 60 years have been vaccinated against the virus
- Families of relatives who died at Donghai Elderly Care hospital have received a letter of apology
Multiple patients have died at the Shanghai Donghai Elderly Care hospital, relatives of patients told the Associated Press.
They say their loved ones were not properly cared for after caretakers who came into contact with the virus were taken away to be quarantined, in adherence to the strict pandemic regulations, depleting the hospital of staff.
Family members have taken to social media to plea for help and for answers, and are demanding to see surveillance video from inside the facility after getting little to no information from the hospital.
The conditions and deaths at the hospital are a sharp rebuke of China’s strategy of sticking to a zero-COVID policy as it deals with the outbreak in Shanghai, in which most of the infected people do not have symptoms.
With a focus on forcing positive cases and close contacts into designated collective quarantine facilities, the costs of zero-COVID may be outweighing the risk of getting sick.
Shen Peiming, 71, was one such casualty. She died at Shanghai Donghai Elderly Care hospital without her loved ones by her side.
Her last nursing assistant had been quarantined for being a close contact of a positive case, a relative said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.
An unfamiliar worker called to inform them of Ms Shen’s death. Later, the hospital said it was due to a chest infection.
The hospital had a COVID-19 outbreak, the family heard from orderlies, but Ms Shen had tested negative as of last week.
Shanghai authorities have reported no deaths from this outbreak, but questions have been raised about the reliability of the data.
It is unclear how many patients have died at the hospital, and whether any died of COVID-19.
Families say they are talking with other families whose relatives have also died.
An article from Chinese news outlet Caixin describing the deaths and infections was taken down shortly after it was published, apparently targeted by censors.
Criticism of zero-COVID approach
Most experts agree that China’s zero-COVID approach was highly successful in keeping deaths to a minimum when there were limited drugs or vaccines.
However, now that shots are widely available in China, and with the advent of the Omicron variant, many say the government should abandon the policy and focus medical resources on the elderly and vulnerable instead.
Shanghai has locked down its entire population and carried out repeated mass testing to tackle an outbreak driven by the highly contagious Omicron BA.2 variant.
On Saturday, local time, the city reported more than 23,000 new local cases, of which only 1,015 had symptoms.
“If you’re asymptomatic, what’s going to hurt you?” said Ray Yip, the founding director of the US Centers for Disease Control office in China, who maintains close ties with Chinese health officials.
“The only people who get sick are those with diabetes, obesity, chronic disease, old people. Protect those people. You can protect them.”
A low vaccination rate among the elderly, though, remains a concern.
Only 62 per cent of Shanghai residents aged over 60 years have been vaccinated, according to the latest data available.
Some experts support the strict approach, saying China needs to raise that rate before it can safely live with the virus.
In Shanghai, workers are rushing to set up massive temporary facilities in exhibition halls, and elsewhere, to try to house everyone who tests positive.
The citywide lockdown has disrupted daily life and the economy.
Many residents, trapped in their apartment buildings, are scrambling to buy food through apps and place bulk orders with neighbours.
Some in quarantine have posted videos showing chaotic scenes of people rushing to get food and a lack of clean toilets.
Others have posted pleas for relatives who need medicine urgently.
Chinese authorities insist COVID-19 response deserves ‘gold medal’
The government has trumpeted its success in curbing COVID-19, touting it as evidence of the superiority of China’s governing system, especially compared to Western democracies, where deaths have far exceeded China’s.
President Xi Jinping this week defended the government’s approach, saying it ensured a safe and smooth Beijing Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“As some foreign athletes have said, if there was a gold medal for responding to the pandemic, then China deserves it,” he said, as quoted by state media outlet Xinhua.
That narrative, experts said, is making it difficult for Beijing to switch tactics.
“They bragged too hard to their own people about how wonderful they are, and now they’ve painted themselves into a corner,” said Dr Yip.
“The only way they can control Shanghai now is to repeat what they did in Wuhan.”
The 11 million residents of Wuhan were locked down for more than two months at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Chen Jielei said the outbreak at the Donghai Elderly Care hospital infected her unvaccinated, partially paralysed 81-year-old mother.
Because staff members also fell ill, her mother was not served meals on time and her sheets were unchanged for days.
After a few days, a replacement worker started taking care of her.
A university professor who spoke anonymously said his family was not notified for more than a day after his 82-year-old father died on March 31.
His last contact was on March 28 with a nursing assistant who called to warn there were positive cases and they could no longer take care of his father.
“In those three days, what happened to my father? What kind of mistreatment did he suffer?” he asked.
The hospital sent an apology letter on Wednesday to some of the families. The AP has viewed a copy.
“Because of the outbreak’s emergency, and many of the seniors had not been vaccinated, this caused those with severe underlying illness and weak health to die,” it said.
While Chinese government researchers have begun exploring ways to end zero-COVID, the government continues to punish officials overseeing large outbreaks.
“The space for discussion is now eliminated,” said Yanzhong Huang, a public health expert at the Council for Foreign Relations in the US.
“The message is loud and clear: zero-COVID, no exceptions.”