The last conversation Salia Yang had with her mother was when she was lying in hospital in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak. Her mother, too weak and feverish to type, whispered halting voice messages into the family chat group. She was brainstorming how to get her parents — Salia’s grandparents — admitted to hospital. They were also infected with the virus but had been sent home to self-quarantine because the hospital had run out of beds. Four hours later, Ms Yang’s mother died. Two days later, her grandfather died too.
Ms Yang’s mother and grandfather are two of more than 800 people to have died from coronavirus. Anger among Chinese is growing as it becomes clear that city authorities knew the virus was spreading for at least three weeks before Ms Yang’s mother died but suppressed the information. More than three-quarters of the deaths have been in Wuhan, a city buckling under the stress of dealing with the epidemic and reeling from the government cover-up.
On January 18, about six weeks after the coronavirus started to spread in Wuhan, Ms Yang’s mother had dinner with five relatives to celebrate China’s lunar new year, the country’s most important holiday. Three days later, she started feeling feverish. Soon after, the rest of her family fell sick too. Over four days, she sought medical help at five hospitals but was turned away each time. Gasping for breath and unable to stand upright, she was finally admitted at a sixth hospital — but it was too late.
“I didn’t realise they would just die like that, so quickly and so easily,” said the 27-year-old Ms Yang, overcome with shock from the sudden deaths of her mother and grandfather. To make matters worse, she is on the other side of the world working at a law firm in Washington, unable to help her family in Wuhan who are all infected and struggling to cope with the impact of the deaths: getting death certificates issued, closing bank accounts, terminating property contracts, settling phone bills.
Ms Yang’s grandmother is now at home on her own, battling coronavirus and grieving the deaths of her husband and daughter. “My grandpa knew how to use a mobile phone so I would stay in touch with my grandma through him. Now, I can’t even check in on my grandma,” said Ms Yang.
The rest of her family have all self-quarantined, fearful of infecting anyone with whom they come into contact.
Ms Yang’s aunt believes she has also been infected even though her test results came back negative on Wednesday. “To us, negative test results don’t mean you aren’t infected. They just mean you won’t be able to get a bed in the hospital and receive the treatment you need,” Ms Yang’s aunt said, adding that she would try to get tested again.
The death rate from the virus in Wuhan at the end of last week was 4.9 per cent, more than double the national average of 2.1 per cent, according to China’s National Health Commission. Jiang Rongmeng, a member of the commission’s team studying the virus, said Wuhan’s inadequate medical resources, especially in intensive care, were contributing to the higher mortality rate.
“The hospital systems have been completely overwhelmed by the number of people who have been seeking care — you see the very long queues, you see the very crowded rooms in the outpatient department and the A&E [accident and emergency] department. Therefore, it’s almost impossible to have the laboratory capacity to test everybody,” said Gabriel Leung, dean of the medical school at the University of Hong Kong.
Two new hospitals with about 2,600-beds have been built to help ease the burden. But this will be far from sufficient, said Wang Jing, a nurse at Wuhan Union Hospital West Campus, one of the facilities designated for coronavirus patients. “There are too many patients, far too many of them, and the demand for beds far outstrips supply,” she said.
Ms Wang and her colleagues in the hospital’s outpatient clinic began to grasp the gravity of the coronavirus outbreak in mid-January. “My colleagues and I started panicking then. Hundreds of confirmed cases emerged overnight and I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I had no idea what the plan was,” she said.
As the outbreak worsened, Ms Wang was overcome by exhaustion, guilt and the constant fear of infection. As medical supplies dwindled and the number of infected patients grew, she and her colleagues have repeatedly turned away extremely sick patients.
“Very ill people came to the hospital begging us to help them but we couldn’t. We only have so much space in the hospital and we didn’t have enough testing kits, there was no way for us to admit them all,” she said.
Some aspects of China’s top-down, authoritarian system, including its ability to mobilise resources from across the country, have been impressive. Ms Wang’s hospital has replenished some of its medical supplies, although she said the 200-odd hospital staff still barely have enough protective gear.
Ms Wang has not been home in almost two weeks, out of fear she will infect her two-year-old daughter, but she hopes to see her again soon.
But for another mother and daughter from Wuhan, this is an impossible dream: Ms Yang and her mother had planned to meet at the end of February on holiday in Scandinavia.
Additional reporting by Qianer Liu in Shenzhen