Bella Zhang hung an intravenous drip on a spindly tree branch and slumped down on a large stone planter outside the crowded hospital. Her mother and brother sat wearily beside her, their shoulders sagging, both also hooked up to their own drips.
In recent days, Zhang (25), a perfume saleswoman with tinted blue hair, had watched helplessly as one by one, her relatives were sickened by the coronavirus that was tearing through her hometown, Wuhan. First, her grandmother got it, then it spread to her grandfather and mother. She and her younger brother were next.
The family had pleaded for help, but the city's hospitals, faced with an extreme shortage of beds, could not take them. On February 1st, Zhang's grandfather died at home. "They tell us to wait," thundered Zhang's mother, Yang Ling. She nearly ripped the intravenous needle out of her hand as she waved her arms in frustration. "But wait until when? We've already lost one."
The city of Wuhan, where the new coronavirus originated, is struggling to get the epidemic under control. The government has imposed a travel lockdown, but that has exacerbated the challenge posed by its limited resources. Overwhelmed and understaffed, hospitals have turned away many sick residents like the Zhangs, forcing them to go home and quarantine themselves in small apartments where they risk infecting other family members.
Nearly 17,000 people have been sickened in the city, and more than 680 have died, accounting for three-quarters of the total deaths in China from the virus. Faced with growing public anger and desperate to stop the spread, authorities in recent days have been rounding up patients with mild symptoms and putting them into makeshift quarantine centres, which pose other challenges for treatment.
The government is converting sports stadiums and exhibition venues into these centres and promised they will be able to house more than 10,000 patients in total. Beds are arranged close together and in tight rows, raising concerns about whether such dormitory-like facilities could inadvertently help spread other infectious diseases among the patients.
Zhang, who was admitted to one of the centres on Thursday with her mother, a retiree, saw it as their only option to keep from infecting her father. It was cold in the tall, repurposed exhibition centre; bathrooms were limited; and there was little privacy. But the beds were heated with electric mattress pads, and medical teams checked their temperatures three times a day and gave out free medicines and meals.
“At least someone cares now,” she said in a telephone call from the quarantine centre.
For Zhang’s family, the first signs of trouble emerged in the week leading up to the Lunar New Year, when her 70-year-old grandmother, who was in good health, had developed a fever and started coughing. By then, the new virus had been spreading in the city for weeks, though officials had mostly played it down.
Even after the government finally acknowledged that it could be transmitted among people, the family didn’t think it was at risk because they spent most of their time indoors. They took her grandmother to a clinic, where the doctor prescribed medicine for a cold and sent her home.
To contain the outbreak, the government restricted travel in and out of the city, shut down public transportation and banned most private cars on the roads. Like many of her fellow residents, Zhang was at first unworried. She posted memes on social media making light of the lockdown and passed the time by sorting trail mix.
Her grandmother, who was staying with them for the holidays, continued to cough. Her fever would not recede. Then Zhang’s grandfather, already weak from lung cancer, suddenly took a turn for the worse. He had been using an oxygen machine to support his breathing for 30 minutes in the morning and again at night. Now he couldn’t breathe at all and needed to be hooked up to the machine around the clock. He came down with a high fever. For four days he was so uncomfortable that he couldn’t sleep, Zhang said.
Desperate to find help, Zhang and her family called everyone they could think of. But the hospitals were all full. Emergency responders told them they needed to secure a hospital bed first before an ambulance could be sent.
That afternoon, her grandfather died in the family’s apartment. Workers from a funeral home arrived to take his body away. They said that because he had possibly been infected with the virus, the family was not allowed to accompany the body and it had to be cremated immediately.
But they had no time to mourn. Zhang’s grandmother was now deteriorating rapidly. They took her to a hospital, where a doctor said that her lungs appeared on a CT scan as almost entirely white – signs of severe pneumonia. She later tested positive for the coronavirus.
Zhang’s grandmother needed to be admitted to one of the hospitals in the city designated to handle coronavirus patients. There, doctors might be able to monitor her vital signs, treat her with antiviral and anti-HIV drugs and provide her with oxygen support.
But there were still no beds. Doctors later told Zhang and her mother they were infected too. Her younger brother, Allen Zhang, also tested positive. They were all told to return home. Her father (50) was the only member of the family who had not been infected. He took to sleeping in the living room, away from the rest of them. They wore masks all the time, even as they slept, and took turns caring for Zhang’s grandmother, who struggled to breathe and could barely get out of bed.
But Bella Zhang was convinced it was only a matter of time before her father was infected as well. They did not have any disinfectants or N95 respirators, heavy-duty masks that better protect against the virus.
“Every day you’re living together, drinking and eating together, sitting together and watching the news,” Zhang said. “No matter how hard you try, of course he’s going to get it.”
Her days quickly fell into a frantic routine. She would take her grandmother to the hospital to see a doctor around midnight, when the lines were shorter, to get medication. During the day, she returned to the hospital with her mother and waited in line.
“What kind of government is this?” Yang, with her daughter by her side, said in a rapid-fire local dialect, her voice carrying across the hospital courtyard. “The news is always talking about how good everything is; they don’t even care about the ordinary people.”
It wasn’t just the government’s slow response to the expanding epidemic that was infuriating. It was what felt like the denial of basic dignity. After Zhang’s grandfather died, she said, he was taken away “like a dead pig or a dead dog”. They still didn’t know where his ashes were and had no time to think about funeral arrangements.
“I can’t even save the people who are alive,” Yang said. “Now all we can do is beg the heavens,” she said. “Begging anyone else is of no use.”