One of the most haunting images to come out of Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak, is of a distressed woman in an upper floor apartment banging a homemade gong and wailing for help.
“There’s nothing I can do, please can someone come help us,” the woman, pleads from her balcony, in a video that went viral.
The plight of the woman, whose sick mother had been denied a hospital bed, is one of countless horror stories emerging from Wuhan and surrounding cities. Authorities have placed about 70m people in the area under lockdown to prevent the spread of the country’s worst viral outbreak since Sars 17 years ago.
Other videos from Wuhan have shown what seem to be bodies in a minibus outside a Wuhan hospital, makeshift quarantine centres in shopping centres and trucks using water cannon to spray clouds of disinfectant over the streets.
Faced with rising discontent with the local authorities’ handling of the outbreak, Xi Jinping this week fired the Wuhan and provincial Communist party heads in one of the most senior shake-ups of the Chinese president’s seven-year rule.
But the new party bosses will have their work cut out regaining the trust of a deeply traumatised population. The local government has not only been accused of covering up the early stages of the outbreak but also of providing inadequate medical care, with hospitals overwhelmed and those terminally ill with diseases other than the coronavirus neglected.
Following public anger over the persecution and death of a whisteblower doctor, Beijing has reluctantly allowed some reporting on the outbreak by officially recognised media. But it has been cracking down on others — two citizen journalists who were covering the outbreak in Wuhan have disappeared.
“There is not enough medicine or healthcare, and a large number of patients have died because they weren’t treated in time,” said Zhang Renqiang, a Wuhan resident. “We just stay at home and self quarantine, waiting for the grim reaper.”
As of Friday, there were almost 64,000 cases and nearly 1,400 deaths in China, most of them in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province.
Since the Wuhan lockdown started on January 23, the number of patients has risen quickly, with the biggest increase coming this week when the government changed how patients are classified.
Just before he was sacked, Wuhan Communist party boss Ma Guoqiang inflamed public opinion by claiming that “98.6” per cent of the city’s citizens had been checked to assess whether they needed treatment.
“Could it be that I live in a different Wuhan?” asked one incredulous blogger on WeChat. Below the post, a slew of commenters told how their family members had not been tested or given proper care.
With hospitals overrun by patients, some in Wuhan have become so desperate for treatment they are posting their medical histories online on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform, in the hope authorities will offer them help. At the end of January, Weibo started a “Pneumonia Victims Seeking Help” forum, which featured over 1,400 posts and had 542,000 followers as of Friday.
One post said loved ones with ailments other than the coronavirus had died because priority was being given to virus patients.
“How can there be so many tragedies in this day and age? What is the Wuhan government f*****g doing?” one user commented below a post.
In Baibuting, a district of Wuhan where the government staged a now notorious lunar new year banquet for 40,000 families in the early days of the outbreak, residents said there was a lack of testing kits and proper checks in the area.
“We hope that the central government knows the situation. Please can you save those of us who live in Baibuting,” the user wrote.
Some have received help. The mother of the woman who banged the gong was rejected from a hospital after a laboratory test for the coronavirus gave a false negative, she told Chinese media outlet Caixin. But after the video went viral, authorities provided her with treatment.
To handle the overflow of patients, Wuhan has built 11 makeshift hospitals, adding about 10,000 hospital beds. The national health commission has said 11,000 nurses and doctors have been flown in to Hubei from across the country.
The online backlash has come as China’s censors are seeking to wind back independent reporting on the crisis.
Chinese lawyer Chen Qiushi, a self-styled “citizen journalist” who helped call attention to Wuhan’s crisis, disappeared last week, according to a friend.
In one of his last posts, Mr Chen wrote about visiting makeshift wards in Wuhan being thrown up in the city’s shopping malls and stadiums. “Will mass cross contagion occur from putting so many suspected patients in these markshift wards?” he wrote.
Fang Bin, another video blogger who posted a clip that went viral of what appeared to be corpses in a coronavirus ward, was taken away by security agents on Monday and a WeChat group he used to share his videos was shut down, according to a former member of the group.
In his later videos, Mr Fang called for society to rebel against the Communist party. “No one is safe, everyone is insecure in this evil, harsh system,” Mr Fang shouted into the camera in the last video he posted.