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People In Epicenter Of Coronavirus Are Desperate For Medical Help


We have other news to cover outside Iowa, of course, and we're going to turn to the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China. The city of Wuhan has been sealed off from the rest of the country since January 23. Nearly a fourth of confirmed cases worldwide are in that one city, and this has left hospitals there struggling to screen and treat suspected and diagnosed cases of this virus. Despite this quarantine, NPR's Emily Feng has been able to reach more than a dozen people in Wuhan who are desperate for medical help. And she joins us from Beijing. Hi, Emily.


GREENE: How are people describing the situation in that city?

FENG: The phrases I hear most are we're helpless and we have to wait. It's because the quarantine has very likely delayed the spread of the virus but has also bottled in thousands of sick people in one city that has limited hospitals. People instead are being asked to go into these makeshift isolation wards where they say they get food but not much else. I managed to speak to someone who has been diagnosed with the coronavirus in one of these wards. Her name was Liu Xiaohong (ph), but she was so sick that she had trouble breathing, which is why I'm not going to play her audio. But she said she wasn't getting care. People just came by in the morning and night to take her temperatures. And for parents and families - or for patients and families, that's been really terrifying, this idea of having this still not yet totally understood virus and being put in a room by yourself. Doctors from Wuhan are also scrambling. They're so short on supplies. Some have reported they're wearing rain jackets and rain boots and sewing their own masks to protect themselves.

GREENE: Wow. I mean, people who are not getting treatment must be begging for it, I would imagine. I mean, it just sounds so desperate. How - what kind of response are they getting when they're saying I need help here?

FENG: They're getting faced with this Kafkaesque bureaucracy. They're being led in circles. One of the people I spoke to is named Pan Yifei (ph). She's been struck with enormous tragedy. Her grandmother died of a pneumonia-like illness on January 25, but because she died so suddenly and so early in the outbreak, she's not sure her grandmother had the coronavirus. Now her aunt, her mother and father are sick with a similar disease. Her father is the only one that's been officially diagnosed. None of them have been able to get into a hospital. And she's so desperate, she's been calling even the Wuhan mayor asking for help.

PAN YIFEI: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: She's saying these public officials have such an attitude towards us, it's made us so bitterly disappointed. They told us we didn't - they didn't know who we should contact. She was told to call her community representatives, who then told her to contact the Health Commission, who then told her to contact the community representatives. So now she can only wait for a phone call. There are hundreds of people in every district in the city who are waiting to get beds or to get screened for the disease. Usually, what they're only able to get is an IV.

GREENE: So if you are incredibly sick or have a family member who is incredibly sick and you don't feel like officials or anyone is there for you, what do you do?

FENG: You're forced to make this gut-wrenching choice right now. You can send families to an isolation ward, and Wuhan has said they're building new isolation wards where they're going to hold people with relatively mild symptoms of the coronavirus. But a lot of people feel like that's just abandoning their loved ones to die alone. And so they're choosing to take care of them inside their own homes, even if that risks infection. I talked to Pearl Tian (ph). She's only 23. That's what she's doing. Both her parents now have the coronavirus. They're living at home with her. There's actually no taxis right now in Wuhan that are allowed to operate, so her parents are actually biking 20 minutes to the hospital every day to get medicine even though they're sick. Here's Pearl.

PEARL TIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She says at this critical moment, we're family, and I have to take care of them, even if I'm terrified. Everyone is terrified. And, of course, the problem right now is people at home taking care of these people are also getting sick themselves.

GREENE: Which could, of course, make the outbreak even worse. Just an extraordinary story worldwide that we'll be following. NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing talking about the epicenter of the coronavirus. Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.