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China shuts hospitals after harsh pandemic rules led to deaths

Residents queue to undergo nucleic acid tests for the COVID-19 coronavirus in Xi'an in China's northern Shaanxi province on Jan. 12, 2022.AFP via Getty Images

Xi’an has temporarily closed two scandal-hit hospitals after their strict adherence to pandemic rules led to deaths, slashing medical capacity in the city battling China’s worst Covid-19 outbreak since Wuhan.

Xi’an Gaoxin Hospital and Xi’an International Medical Center Hospital will close for three months, the city’s Health Commission said in a Thursday statement, during which time they will undergo a “rectification” process.

“They had a weak sense of responsibility and failed to perform their duty of saving lives,” the commission said. Poor management led to delays in the diagnosis and treatment of critically ill patients that attracted “widespread public attention and had a bad social impact,” it added.

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Shares in Xi’an International Medical Investment, which owns both hospitals, fell by a 10% daily limit in Shenzhen after the announcement.

There was public outcry when a pregnant woman miscarried outside Xi’an Gaoxin Hospital earlier this month, after being denied entry because her Covid test had expired. Separately, the father of one Xi’an resident died after initially being denied care at Xi’an International Medical Center Hospital after a sudden heart attack, despite having a negative Covid test, according to a widely-circulated article on social media.

Discussion of the hospital closures was the No.1 trending item on China’s Twitter-like Weibo early Thursday afternoon, with some users criticizing the government’s decision -- a rarity in the nation ruled by a single party intolerant of dissent.

“Personally, I think this is not a good idea,” wrote one user named Stephanie_277. “The hospitals have indeed done wrong but given medical access is tight at the moment, if hospitals are shutdown, where do patient go to seek care and where can doctors work?”

Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper, said on WeChat that the punishment “was too much.” “Even if such rectifications are really needed, shouldn’t they wait until the outbreak is over and things in Xi’an get back to normal?” he said. “What’s the reason for carrying out such heavy punishment now?”

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Vice Premier Sun Chunlan told officials in Xi’an last week that medical facilities across the world’s No. 2 economy “must not turn away patients under any excuse” and should immediately admit people with severe conditions regardless of whether they have a negative test.

Covid Zero

Xi’an has reported some 2,000 cases in the past month. To stem that outbreak it has imposed a lockdown that’s banned its more than 13 million residents from leaving their homes without a special reason, triggering shortages of food and medical care. The outbreak appeared to be coming under control Thursday as daily new infections trickled to single digits from more than 150 at the peak in December.

China is one of the only countries left practicing a Covid Zero strategy that relies on strict border controls, extensive testing and even lockdowns to bring infections to zero.

Officials who fall short of that effort to eliminate cases face harsh punishments. Earlier this month, two hospital department heads were fired and a general manager suspended over the woman’s miscarriage, and Liu Shunzhi, head of the city’s health commission, received a warning from the Communist Party for malpractice in emergency treatment.

Two lower-level officials have already been dismissed in Xi’an over epidemic prevention measures, while Liu Jun, head of the local big-data bureau, was suspended when the health code system that strictly controls people’s movements crashed.

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