Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus in Wuhan in December, over 20,000 medical personnel from across China have gone to the city of 11 million people to help the deluged health workers handle the crisis. But in a letter published in the medical journal The Lancet this week, two nurses in Wuhan wrote that “much more help” is needed.
“We are asking nurses and medical staff from countries around the world to come to China now, to help us in this battle,” wrote Yingchun Zeng and Yan Zhen, who both traveled to work in the beleaguered city from Guangzhou, a city of 13 million about ten hours south of Wuhan.
Though much of the attention paid to coronavirus this week has been spent on new, international transmissions — or on the Trump administration’s conflicting responses to the emerging domestic crisis — the letter from the nurses helped draw attention back to the source. “The conditions and environment here in Wuhan are more difficult and extreme than we could ever have imagined,” the nurses — 2 of some 14,000 working in the city — wrote. They described a “severe shortage of protective equipment,” including respirators, face shields, goggles, gowns, and gloves. “In order to save energy and the time it takes to put on and take off protective clothing, we avoid eating and drinking for two hours before entering the isolation ward,” the letter stated. Pictures published on Wednesday depicted the wear of the overwhelming workload. Zeng and Zhen described “pressure ulcers on their ears and forehead” from donning multiple layers of protective gear for hours at a time.
The letter — which was retracted* on Wednesday — states that health workers have fainted from low blood sugar and lack of oxygen, and notes that “in addition to the physical exhaustion, we are also suffering psychologically. While we are professional nurses, we are also human. Like everyone else, we feel helplessness, anxiety, and fear … Even experienced nurses may also cry, possibly because we do not know how long we need to stay here and we are the highest-risk group for Covid-19 infection.” On Monday, the day the letter was published in the prestigious weekly journal, China’s National Health Commission announced that over 3,200 health workers have contracted coronavirus — 90 percent of which were working in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. Though last month China accepted aid and advice from global health experts, there hasn’t been much in terms of on-the-ground help from international personnel.
While new cases in China appear to be slowing, the letter from Wuhan depicts a much different scenario than state media has described in recent, more optimistic reports. Meanwhile, internal censorship persists: An online forum used by Chinese medical professionals published the letter this week, but it was soon removed.
*On Wednesday, The Lancet retracted the nurses’s letter as the “account described therein was not a first-hand account, as the authors had claimed, and that they wished to withdraw the piece.”