China races to build more hospitals as coronavirus outbreak grows

Construction is taking place away from media glare to avoid alarming nearby residents who fear spread of infection.

Hospitals - China
An aerial view shows the newly completed Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan. It was built in 10 days to treat coronavirus patients [China Daily via Reuters]

Authorities in China have glorified the rush to build two infectious disease hospitals in a matter of days at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak that has now claimed at least 490 lives on the mainland, with live streams showing the construction and the arrival of the first patients at Huoshenshan field hospital in Wuhan on Tuesday.

The 1,000-bed Huoshenshan, or Fire-God Mountain, hospital and the 1,600-bed Leishenshan, or Thunder God Mountain, hospital – which will start taking patients on Thursday – have been the main focus of attention for the country’s state-run media, with round-the-clock coverage.

Less known, however, are the other hospitals now under construction elsewhere in the country to address the shortage of beds and facilities needed to treat the outbreak.

Al Jazeera has been able to identify several that have broken ground in the past week as well as many more, from larger 1,000-bed facilities to smaller, 50-bed rural clinics, that are being planned or are already under construction.

“I don’t think anyone knows the number, it could be [a lot of these] are either the county level, city level or the district level,” Chen Xi, assistant professor of Public Health at Yale School of Medicine told Al Jazeera by phone.

The only other hospital to receive sustained attention from China’s official media is a prefabricated isolation facility being built at an emergency hospital in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, which is just north of the major outbreak area of Hubei. There, 542 portable cabins were installed to serve as an isolation ward for coronavirus and will be ready to receive patients by mid-February.

While some have dubbed these other hospitals as local versions of Xiaotangshan, the Beijing hospital famous for treating patients during the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), there appears to be some wariness about reusing that name to avoid sparking panic.

‘Glowing like a football stadium’

One construction worker at a 1,000-bed facility being built in the Gao’ling area near Xi’an in Shaanxi province, told Al Jazeera that government officials had requested they not use the Xiaotangshan name.

“We can see the new site from our window,” a resident near the Xi’an facility said, also declining to allow his name to be used.

“Last night it was glowing like a football stadium. Even now we can see the cranes operating, a straight three-kilometre line away from our place.”

Wuhan, China
Workers set up beds at the Wuhan Parlor Convention Center on Tuesday to convert it into a makeshift hospital [China Daily via Reuters]

A growing fear appears to be local opposition to placing new infectious disease hospitals near residential areas, with people concerned the hospitals will become provincial centres for treating cases and end up being zones for the transmission of the virus.

Such was the case in Nantong, Jiangsu province, where two residents were arrested for “spreading rumours” about a new facility online. The local government, however, confirmed that a new hospital to treat coronavirus patients was under construction.

According to a statement from local police on February 4, a Mr Wang was arrested for saying the “facility would be used for coronavirus cases from all around Jiangsu” while a Ms Feng was arrested for collecting images and messages and circulating them on WeChat, China’s main social networking platform. Each was fined 500 yuan [$71] and jailed for five days.

‘Pop-up hospitals’

While the new facilities in the outbreak zone are opening in a flood of publicity, the pop-up hospitals and clinics have started to draw some criticism.

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“I don’t think it’s a good idea and I’ve heard other voices against the decision also,” Mr Zhao, an owner of a restaurant only 500 metres away from where the Nantong facility is being built told Al Jazeera by phone, declining to give his full name.

“There are many residential buildings here, (the treatment facilities) could pose a threat to our health,” Zhao said.

“They should have chosen a less densely populated area. I only heard about this [Tuesday] on WeChat.”

Other facilities known to have broken ground in the past few days include a 1,000-bed hospital in Shenzhen, a 300-bed facility in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, another of unknown size in Harbin, Heilongjiang, and an 80-room building being repurposed as an infectious disease hospital in Nanchang, Jiangxi.

Healthcare bottleneck

Chen, the Yale University professor, believes facilities are being built in almost every province, but added that most of the more developed areas have the capacity to handle the influx of coronavirus patients.

“In my hometown of Nanjing [in Jiangsu] they had already built a facility two years ago, so they have good preparation,” Chen said.

“The most worrisome part, and I think many of us share this concern, is that constantly we focus on the big cities, but actually the bottleneck of China’s healthcare system is in rural areas,” he said.

Hospital - Wuhan
WHO’s Jasarevic said it has no information on how many facilities are being built in China, but said the country had made considerable strides since the SARS outbreak in 2003 [C hina Daily via Reuters]

“With Wuhan, there were 5 million people who left before it was locked down and of those, the data shows that at least half went back to their hometown, country village communities.”

Chen said what is happening with those people in rural areas is a “black box, we have no idea”.

Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization, told Al Jazeera that he did not have information on the newly built facilities in China, but added that the country had made considerable strides since the SARS outbreak and its current “massive response” had helped reduce the spread of the coronavirus to other countries.

“China is already working directly with us through our various expert networks, and shares detailed information on public health measures taken, epidemiological and biological studies, clinical management, travel restrictions, and prevention measures via official channels. China has shared more detailed information at regular intervals,” Jasarevic said.

Neither the China National Health Commission nor the China Centre for Disease Control had information available on their websites related to the number of hospitals being built or used to deal with coronavirus patients or suspected cases.

Additional reporting assistance by Zhong Yunfan. 

Source: Al Jazeera