Chongqing: Attached to a breathing tube under a pile of blankets, an old man racked with Covid-19 lay groaning on a stretcher in the emergency department of a hospital in central China Thursday.
In Chongqing, and across the country, the virus is surging. Authorities say the number of cases is impossible to keep track of after the abrupt abandonment of years of mass testing, lockdowns and travel restrictions. A paramedic at Chongqing Medical University First Affiliated Hospital who confirmed the old man was a Covid patient said he had picked up over 10 people a day, 80 to 90 percent of whom were infected with coronavirus. "Most of them are elderly people," he said. "A lot of hospital staff are positive as well, but we have no choice but to carry on working." The old man waited half an hour to be treated, while in a nearby treatment room, AFP saw six other people in sick beds, surrounded by harried doctors and relatives.
They too were mostly elderly, and when asked if they were all Covid patients, a doctor said: "Basically." Five were strapped to respirators and had obvious breathing difficulties. Millions of elderly across China are still not fully vaccinated, raising concerns that the virus will kill the country's most vulnerable citizens in huge numbers. But under new government guidelines, many of those deaths would not be blamed on Covid. Previously, people who died of an illness while infected with the virus were counted as a Covid death, but now only those who directly die of respiratory failure caused by the virus will be counted.
"Old people have other underlying conditions, only a very small number die directly of respiratory failure caused by infection with Covid," an official said this week. Back at the Chongqing hospital, the staff had their hands full, ferrying elderly patients to different floors of the hospital as families and other visitors hovered anxiously. A passing inpatient ward doctor confirmed the hospital had been very busy with Covid patients, but declined to elaborate further. AFP was not permitted to access the critical respiratory illness ward. - 'Covid isn't a big deal' - Away from the Covid wards, the streets of Chongqing were returning to a semblance of normal, with pedestrians and traffic beginning to clog up some roads. Residents said most of their acquaintances had been infected with Covid, though some people were still frightened of going out. "In the past couple of days, it seems like they've started an orderly return to work. The roads are starting to get busy again," said a taxi driver surnamed Xiang.
"Since reopening, business hasn't been any better. Before there were lots of tourists, now people don't come because they're scared." In a massage parlour above the glitzy neon lights of the central Jiefangbei business district on Wednesday, a worker also lamented the dire state of business. "Chongqing has suffered drought, heatwave and an epidemic this year -- the only disaster we haven't had yet is a flood!" said the masseur, who gave his surname as Zheng. Zheng got infected earlier this month, and he had to scour three pharmacies before finding fever medicine. A Chongqing taxi driver surnamed Yang said a lot of people had been infected in the city already -- including himself, his entire family and most of his friends. "We had no choice but to treat ourselves at home," he told AFP. "A lot of hospitals were not receiving patients for any kind of illness, let alone Covid." But Yang said he thought it was worth it. "We should have reopened a long time ago," he said. "Covid isn't a big deal. For most people, they just get it and move on."