Chinese citizens are racing to buy ventilators and oxygen machines as anxiety and frustration mount over Beijing’s attempts to rein in a growing coronavirus outbreak.
Cities across the country were rocked by protests over the weekend against government efforts to control record Covid-19 cases and against censorship after the deaths of 10 people in an apartment fire in Urumqi were blamed on coronavirus restrictions.
More than a dozen online medical equipment stores told the Financial Times that sales of devices used to detect or treat symptoms of Covid-19 had shot up since November 11, when the State Council, China’s cabinet, announced shorter coronavirus quarantine requirements for close contacts and international travellers.
Michael Huang, owner of a Hangzhou-based private fund, spent Rmb4,000 ($560) on a ventilator and Rmb1,000 on an oxygen machine for his 74-year-old father a few hours after Beijing announced the new rules.
“Hospitals will inevitably face a shortage of beds to accommodate the influx of patients,” said Huang. “I need to make sure my father receives treatment at home if the emergency room couldn’t take him.”
Analysts said private demand for Covid-related medical equipment revealed a lack of confidence in China’s state-backed health system in dealing with a nationwide coronavirus outbreak.
“There is a widespread belief that Chinese hospitals will be overwhelmed with virus carriers when Beijing eventually gives up [the] zero-Covid policy,” said Yanzhong Huang, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “The public wants to get prepared for the worst-case scenario.”
Andrew Gilholm, head of China analysis at Control Risks, a consultancy, said after the protests, Xi Jinping’s administration lacked options to “smoothly or predictably” exit zero-Covid.
“Local governments will make some targeted concessions and central government will keep looking at plans to ease, but they won’t — and cannot risk being seen to — suddenly drop national policies as a response to protest pressure,” he said.
Any missteps, he added, risked triggering more protests.
The predominant Omicron variant causes less severe illness and fewer deaths than earlier Covid iterations. However, in China the virus poses a significant threat to the elderly population. Almost a third of those aged over 60 have not completed a three-dose vaccination course.
In addition to shorter quarantines, the State Council ended the tracing of second-degree close contacts of confirmed positive cases. The measures, aimed at easing pressure on the centralised quarantine system, were viewed by some as a tentative step towards prioritising economic growth over pandemic controls.
In a muddled reaction over the past two weeks, officials in some cities initially appeared to relax PCR testing requirements and balked at citywide lockdowns to try to arrest the decline of the country’s battered economy.
However, attempts to ease strict zero-Covid rules have coincided with the worst outbreak in six months, including in southern manufacturing hub Guangzhou as well as in the capital Beijing. China has imposed a record level of lockdowns in recent days, fuelling discontent.
Data from Tencent-owned WeChat, China’s biggest social media platform, showed about a 90-fold spike in searches for ventilators and oxygen machines and oximeters compared with before the State Council announcement.
Against this backdrop, there is rising concern that there will be a surge in demand for life-saving medical services and equipment, especially outside the biggest cities such as Shanghai.
“Every country has experienced this,” said Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. “China won’t be an exception.”
Searches for ventilators were more than 80 times higher than normal on November 10, when Beijing relaxed Covid restrictions. The figures were 24 times higher for oxygen machines and 12 times higher for oximeters between November 10 and November 19.
Southwest Securities, a Chongqing-based financial firm, estimated in a report last week that up to 12mn Chinese households might need to purchase ventilators and oxygen machines if zero-Covid restrictions were unwound.
Other experts, however, appeared less concerned, arguing that the country’s health system would cope as more elderly Chinese completed vaccine courses.
“There is no need to be worried,” said Lu Jiahai, a public health scholar at Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sen University and a government adviser. “A booster shot is enough to keep old people healthy when the pandemic kicks in.”
Many citizens are unconvinced. Jeffery Zhang, a Nanjing-based software engineer, paid more than Rmb9,000 for a ventilator and an oxygen machine soon after Beijing eased restrictions.
“Many old people will die of Covid regardless of how many vaccine shots they have received,” said Zhang. “I don’t want my parents to be one of them.”
Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing