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China grapples with COVID surge that may be the worst since the pandemic began


China is grappling with what might be its worst COVID-19 surge since the start of the pandemic. Across the country, hospitals are overwhelmed. Infections have spread so fast since emergency measures were lifted earlier this month that several countries, including India, Japan, Italy and the U.S., are requiring COVID-19 tests for passengers from China. Global concern that new variants could emerge prompted those moves. Joining us now is Beijing-based Associated Press reporter Dake Kang, who recently visited Chinese hospitals treating COVID patients.

Dake, what did you see during the reporting from these hospitals in China?

DAKE KANG: Yeah. So I had been to hospitals in Beijing at the beginning of this wave, and at first it seemed quite orderly - you know, short lines and all of that. But later, my colleagues and I went to hospitals outside of Beijing in kind of smaller cities and towns. And what we saw there was, frankly, alarming. You know, we were seeing packed ER wards, patients lined up in the hallways or lying, even, on the floor because there was just no space for all of the patients that were coming in. We saw ambulances being turned away because medical workers were basically warning that there weren't enough medical resources to take care of incoming patients. So what we saw on the ground was quite dire.

MARTÍNEZ: Is there any idea why these hospitals outside of Beijing are suffering more?

KANG: Yeah. You know, China's medical infrastructure is quite unequal. In big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, you have, you know, pretty top-tier medical care. But the moment you go outside of the big cities, it's a totally different story. You know, China does not have a strong medical infrastructure in smaller cities and towns, and they do not have enough ICU beds to grapple with China's large population. On top of that, China - Chinese people, in general, have a tendency to rely on hospitals in particular for even basic medical care for a variety of reasons, cultural and economic. And so as a result, when you have a public health crisis like this COVID wave, what ends up happening is that a lot of people flood hospitals, and that can easily overwhelm the system.

MARTÍNEZ: How did the citizens there react when the government suddenly just lifted the isolation measures earlier this month?

KANG: I think there was quite a lot of surprise, confusion, joy. There was - it was a mixed reaction, right? I mean, a lot of people have suffered quite a lot under China's very harsh "zero-COVID" policy, which this year in particular was just getting more and more absurd - I mean, you know, entire cities constantly going under lockdown. It was really difficult to plan any kind of travel because you just didn't know if there would be some kind of snap lockdown or notification telling you that you couldn't leave. So I think a lot of people were happy that those measures were released. But at the same time, you know, there's a bit of whiplash because this change has been a total 180, seemingly overnight. I mean, we went from having harsh measures that the government said would not change, that they would resolutely uphold to all of a sudden going the opposite direction.

MARTÍNEZ: And really quick, China's National Health Commission counted 4,128 new cases the day before. That - when they released their data was Dec. 24. I mean, the reality on the ground seems to, like, really differ from the official data.

KANG: Absolutely. You know, the official data stopped being reliable because the government stopped mandating mass testing for everyone. And so they just can't catch all the cases anymore.

MARTÍNEZ: That's AP reporter Dake Kang. Thanks a lot.

KANG: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.