Jianguo was exhausted when he returned home after a long day’s work at Wuhan’s Pulmonary Hospital, one of the medical facilities designated to treat those infected with a new type of coronavirus in the central Chinese city.
The 52-year-old cleaner said his hospital was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people seeking medical care, with doctors and nurses overworked and supplies running low.
Since the new virus was first detected in Wuhan in late December, nearly 400 people have died and more than 17,000 others infected – the vast majority of deaths and infections have occurred in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. The rapidly spreading virus has stretched the healthcare systems in Hubei, with some medical personnel saying China’s government was completely unprepared for the outbreak and describing its response as chaotic.
But when Jianguo turned on his television on January 28, he was greeted by television anchors hailing the government’s “transparent and swift” response and videos of Wuhan residents joyfully expressing faith in the Chinese Communist Party to contain the virus.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on the telephone, Jianguo, who preferred to give one name, said he immediately contacted his son, an avid user of the Chinese micro-blogging site, Weibo.
“Are you seeing the news? Are they serious?” he recalled telling his son. “Doctors and nurses at my hospital are so exhausted that they are on the edge of breaking down. And those people who look so happy on camera – are they living in a different universe?”
Jianguo’s son immediately posted a message on his Weibo account, along with a picture from the hospital of doctors and nurses sleeping on chairs in apparent exhaustion. “I don’t care what CCTV is saying,” he wrote, referring to Chinese state television. “But the situation in Wuhan is still dire.”
The picture, which was quickly shared and liked by thousands of Weibo users, is just one among many posted on Chinese social media in recent days, challenging the official narrative offered by the heavily-censored state-media
China has tightly controlled the coverage of the outbreak, according to Human Rights Watch, which on January 30 accused Chinese authorities of withholding information from the public, under-reporting cases of infection and downplaying the severity of the infection. The New York-based rights group said Chinese police have harassed people on allegations of “spreading rumours” about the outbreak, including the detention of a doctor who had warned colleagues that the new virus was similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which had killed 349 people and infected 5,300 others in mainland China in 2003.
Indeed, it was only after January 20, when President Xi Jinping issued a statement saying he would curb the spread of the outbreak and called for the release of information in a “timely manner”, that state media started to report on the extent of the crisis. Days later, Wuhan, a city of 11 million, was placed under quarantine and the lockdown was extended to an area of more than 50 million people – measures the World Health Organization (WHO) has praised Chinese authorities for.
But in the days that followed, many Wuhan residents took to social media to criticise the government’s handling of the crisis, with users complaining about what they said was a lack of adequate care at hospitals as well as what they called a delay in informing citizens of the outbreak.
On Wednesday, another Weibo user posted a picture of her grandfather lying in the hallway of a hospital and wrote: “My grandfather has been having a fever for three days now, and no hospital is admitting him! Is the government going to let all of us die like this?!”