In Anhui, one of the poorest provinces in eastern China, COVID has hit hard.
Since China reversed its zero COVID policy last month, a whirlwind of cases has packed hospitals with elderly patients and has unleashed a pitched battle over limited drug supplies.
In addition, the great difference in the country’s wealth has fueled the health disparities between cities and rural areasand underdeveloped regions suffer from a chronic shortage of doctors, equipment and experts.
When the wave of COVID hit in the second half of December, Anhui doctors stayed quickly without diagnostic kits and treatments.
“No one tested, so we didn’t know if we were HIV positive or not,” explains Shao, from a village near Bengbu, a city of 3.3 million people.
“It’s been a total disaster”, he said to the AFP while lighting a cigarette. “Things were better when the government kept us all locked up.”
A doctor told the AFP what was seen forced to work 14 hours a day in Decemberwhen the two-room clinic in his village was inundated with up to 10 times more patients than usual.
The sick, he said, They “had to queue outside” the building as the small waiting room was full.
And in a nearby town, the director of a small health center said drug supplies were “so depleted that we had to stop prescribing.”
Overburdened clinics were ordered to send elderly patients with severe symptoms to larger hospitals in the city for better care.
In a back room of the health center, a handful of patients on drips huddled at the end of a dank, dimly lit corridor, the empty seats between them indicating that the pressure had dropped, at least for now.
The crisis was most acute in the city of Barcelona fengyangwhere the AFP saw dozens of patients in an observation room.
“Don’t leave things to chance. Protect yourselves properly (against the virus),” a red and white banner on a wall proclaimed. Several interviewees in the field said older people were dying in higher numbers than usual after showing symptoms.
Sun, in his 30s, said that “many of the elders of this town could not overcome” the diseasebut did not want to specify how many.
China has narrowed the definition of a COVID death, and only a few dozen fatalities have been officially recorded since early December.
A town doctor said they knew of “about 50” deaths since early December, many of whom had underlying conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure. It was a much higher number than in previous winters, he added.
But public debate about the number of cases and deaths is taboo.
Several rural doctors declined interview requests from the AFPand one of them refused to speak without official permission in case “he ended up saying something he shouldn’t.”
The health authorities of Bengbuthe city that administers the towns, did not respond to questions from the AFP about the death toll, the scale of the outbreak, or preparations for reopening.
Farther north, in a dusty town in shandonglocals herding goats and playing Chinese chess, masks in short supply in a part of the country rarely visited by Western journalists.
But like everywhere in China, the virus was never too far away, with a street sign urging locals to “scientifically strengthen the prevention and control of the spread of the epidemic in accordance with the law.”
In the village of xishana woman in her 50s said she was simply looking forward to “all the young people back” for the Lunar New Year, despite fears the holiday would bring a new surge of COVID.
Back in Anhui, a similarly aged resident wasn’t so sure. “Right now we are very scared“, it states.
(With information from AFP)