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‘People are scared’: Xi’an residents struggle to find food and medical help

Two days after a woman who was turned away from a Xi’an hospital suffered a miscarriage, an elderly man died of heart disease when various medical institutions refused to treat him because he lived in a neighbourhood with a confirmed coronavirus case.

By the time the 61-year-old was finally admitted to Xi’an Gaoxin Hospital, doctors told the man’s family it was too late to save his life.

“I can’t imagine the despair and suffering my father experienced in the last hours of his life,” the man’s daughter wrote in a post on the microblog Weibo.

The Financial Times was unable to confirm the details of the post independently, but her story echoes those of other Xi’an residents who have reported multiple incidents of neglect and need in the most stringent lockdown since the pandemic erupted in Wuhan two years ago.

On New Year’s Day, a pregnant woman was denied entry to the Xi’an Gaoxin Hospital for several hours because her negative Covid test results were not up to date. She waited outside until she began to bleed. After the woman miscarried, officials fired senior staffers at the hospital.

Yanzhong Huang, a public health policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the chaotic scenes in Xi’an, where many residents have been left without food and access to medical resources, reflected “poor emergency preparation at the local level, even after the pandemic has been going on for two years”.

The central city has recorded more than 1,900 infections over the past month, just a fraction compared with the numbers experienced in countries such as the US, which reported more than 1m cases on Tuesday.

But China’s “zero-Covid” policy means that the outbreak in Xi’an must be treated as a crisis. Officials have banned more than 13m residents from leaving their homes unless they have special dispensation.

A man in a protective suit stands guard at an entrance of a residential compound in Xi’an in China’s northern Shaanxi province
For residents in Xi’an, even with daily case numbers declining, there is no indication of when lockdown measures will be eased © AFP via Getty Images

Many families couped up in their apartments have suffered food shortages, which have been exacerbated this week after city officials placed everyone who had come into contact with a Covid case into a government quarantine facility. These included food delivery workers and volunteers who distributed essential supplies to locked-down communities.

An owner of a grocery store in Xi’an, who did not want to be named, told the Financial Times that they had run out of vegetables after receiving just one delivery of emergency rations from the government since the lockdown began on December 22.

“People are scared,” the shop owner said, “which is not surprising because we’re not allowed to go outside and can only get information from our phone.” 

Jane Huang, a freelance marketing agent in Xi’an, said that she was able to get groceries from her local supermarket that had good connections with suppliers. But other neighbourhoods “didn’t have the same luck because stores are closed and delivery workers aren’t allowed to operate”.

“A lot of my friends said they are starving or scraping by with instant noodles,” she said.

China’s zero-Covid policy has proved effective at preventing the large number of deaths suffered in some western countries, according to the country’s official statistics. And analysts said that China was unlikely to depart from the policy. In November, leading health officials warned that a nationwide outbreak would “cause a great disaster”. Given the low efficacy of Chinese vaccines, a big outbreak could lead to mass hospitalisations and deaths.

But the suffering experienced by Xi’an residents left without food and access to medical treatment has underscored the cost of draconian lockdown measures without contingency planning. A commentator on Weibo posted to more than 3m followers that “departments should have less rigid regulations and show more compassion . . . Epidemic control should not forget the spirit of humanity.”

Yanzhong Huang said Xi’an politicians were under “extreme pressure” to stamp out infections before Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics in February, which encouraged them to pursue “excessive methods to get the job done.”

But after the outpouring of anger that followed news of the woman’s miscarriage, authorities changed tack. Xu Mingfei, Xi’an’s deputy mayor, said this week that hospitals could no longer reject patients needing emergency attention. He also pledged to boost resources for vulnerable groups with urgent medical needs such as pregnant women and patients requiring dialysis and chemotherapy.

Calvin Ho, a bioethicist at the University of Hong Kong, noted that in contrast to the badly managed outbreak in Xi’an, Shanghai authorities in November managed to control a surge of infections of the Delta variant. They took decisive measures that included confining 34,000 guests to the city’s Disneyland Park for testing and isolation.

“There are differing abilities between local governments when it comes to controlling the pandemic,” said Ho, pointing out that officials in the north-central province of Henan are also rushing to control an outbreak with 56 cases detected on Friday.

But for residents in Xi’an, even with daily case numbers declining, there is no indication of when lockdown measures will be eased.

“It has been like this for 14 days now and I don’t know when things will be relaxed,” said Huang, who is desperate to take her dog for a walk in the fresh air.

Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding in Beijing

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