The sense of helplessness that has gripped the Chinese people on and off since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago is again returning as the country grapples with an unidentified pneumonia outbreak that’s infecting children and overwhelming hospitals.
In strollers or carried by their parents, sick children have been filling hospital waiting rooms and hallways and spilling outside the main gates. They wait for hours hoping for their number to be called on the loudspeaker before the day is over.
Waiting up to 12 hours isn’t uncommon—if one can get in line at all. After staying past midnight in a hospital hallway teeming with people, a Beijing resident shared a photo while holding a ticket number in the 1800s—the placement in the day’s queue—reminding would-be visitors to bring a stool with them, because “there’s nowhere to sit if you need to get an IV drip.”
From north to south, the spike in children’s respiratory hospitalizations is shutting classrooms and pushing health authorities to issue a flurry of announcements telling teachers and students who feel unwell to stay home.
“Everyone in the class is coughing—you can’t even hear what the teacher is saying,” a man with the surname Chen told The Epoch Times, recounting what he heard from his school-aged daughter from Beijing.
Just like three years ago, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appears dismissive of the disease’s risk, telling a concerned World Health Organization that there are no “unusual or new pathogens” or clinical symptoms.
The regime partially attributed the uptick to a mid-October upgrade in a respiratory surveillance mechanism and asserted that the existing Chinese hospital capacities have been sufficient to handle the situation.
Beijing’s explanation, which the international health agency as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have quoted verbatim, has convinced few in China or abroad.
The acting director of the WHO’s Department of Epidemic and Pandemic Preparedness and Prevention, Maria Van Kerkhove, said in a Nov. 29 press briefing that the organization is “following up with the situation in China” and assessing “the health care capacities around the world” in dealing with these types of new infections.
Sean Lin, microbiologist and former lab director at the viral diseases branch of Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, expressed frustration over the WHO’s reliance on China’s regime for information.
“How can you trust the Chinese government data?” he told The Epoch Times.
Many lawmakers in Washington, especially Republicans, see the same thing happening in China now.
Rep. Greg Murphy (R-N.C.), a practicing surgeon, similarly said he believes “China’s going to do everything possible so that they don’t look like they’re the genesis of another pandemic.”
“I don’t trust anything the Chinese say—not a word,” he told NTD. “You get burned once, you don’t get burned again.”
A Fast Spreading PathogenAt about this time last year, the regime abruptly abandoned its draconian zero-COVID restrictions after forcing the Chinese population to live for years in an on-again, off-again lockdown with food and other basic needs hanging in the balance.
Children have been hit particularly hard during the current pneumonia outbreak. Major Chinese pediatric hospitals across China have reported receiving up to 10,000 patients each day in recent weeks.
A daily record of 13,171 patients recently at Tianjin Children’s Hospital proved such a shock that its director, Liu Wei, penned an emotional letter pleading for public understanding. The medical workers, she emphasized, are also parents, some with their own sick children.
Other health workers from the northeastern megacity confirmed that the same pattern is repeating throughout Tianjin if not elsewhere. Going to the doctor at a hospital, for many Chinese, means waiting in the wee hours of the morning in front of their computer screens to secure placement numbers, which are limited daily.
“Even when our children get sick, we also have trouble getting a number. We also have to keep refreshing the screen to see if a number becomes available,” one Beichen Hospital staff member told The Epoch Times.
Farther north, in Jilin Province, a staff member from the Second Hospital of Jilin University said the hospital was booked for the next seven days.
In some hospitals, the waiting rooms were so packed that children and their families had to line up outside the hospital gate. Tents, camping beds, foldable chairs, and blankets were all put into use, while those needing intravenous treatment brought hangers and lifting hooks to self-administer an IV during the wait.
Feeling the pressure, authorities in the northern Chinese city of Sanhe have dispatched workers in hazmat suits to sanitize campuses. A man from Beijing, Mr. Liu, told The Epoch Times that the hospital he was staying in had put out a mask mandate and limited family visits to a two-hour window each evening.
People in the thick of it speak uneasily of how quickly, and persistently, the disease has been taking hold.
On the Chinese social media site Weibo, an elementary school teacher from southern China’s Hunan Province said her entire class fell sick overnight and stayed home. The teacher also called in sick after a night of high fever, hand tremors, ringing in ears, and a dry cough that brought sharp lung pain.
A Beijing mother of two, whose entire family recently suffered from the disease, referred to a local school in which half of the students became afflicted despite all the precautionary measures.
“There’s not much you can do,” she told The Epoch Times. “Mask up and cover yourself as much as you like; you get infected all the same.”
It’s also hard to completely shake it, she said. Days after the coughing and sneezing ceased, a student believed to have recovered became feverish again.
“China’s the No. 1 purveyor of lies and deceit. Luckily, they’ve clearly been unable to cover this up thus far,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) told NTD.
Downplaying the OutbreakThe statistics released by the Beijing Municipal Health Commission are so far the only data point to gauge the severity of the current outbreak.
It pinpointed 16 infection sources, among them flu and mycoplasma—a kind of bacteria that can cause respiratory infections and pneumonia—echoing the official rhetoric that sources other than COVID-19 are to blame for the spiraling patient numbers.
Chinese state media have spent the past month attempting to reassure the public that the outbreak is just a routine winter spike of common respiratory pathogens and that there’s little need to panic.
The Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, People’s Daily, carried an article saying that mycoplasma pneumonia is “preventable and controllable,” phrases that the regime used in January 2020 when the COVID-19 outbreak in China began to draw international anxiety.
But the focus on mycoplasma might be a deliberate step to mislead and detract, according to Mr. Lin.
“The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t want the international society to suspect that China is suffering another COVID wave,” he said, calling the emphasis on common pathogens “purely political.”
“There’s so many common respiratory pathogens and the government can hold any of them to blame—but it’s not the real picture.”
Multiple questions arise from Chinese authorities’ narrative that the illness is likely mycoplasma pneumonia.
Mycoplasma typically spreads over a prolonged period through droplets, according to the CDC, which says most people “do not get infected” when spending a short amount of time with the infected.
The disease is so mild that it doesn’t even make it to the 59 types of notifiable diseases on China’s CDC website.
Nor has any past respiratory disease season reached the scale China is now grappling with. A doctor from Anhui Provincial Children’s Hospital, a national medical center, told Chinese media that his hospital has been performing an average of 50 “lung washing” procedures daily for infected children who have serious lung complications, up from roughly 10 per day in normal periods. The most they’ve treated is 67 cases in one day.
Conventional treatment methods for mycoplasma pneumonia haven’t worked either. A pediatric doctor who got sick told The Epoch Times that she has taken “every possible drug for mycoplasma pneumonia, but none proved effective.”
COVID-19 is probably still the driving force behind the current wave, according to Mr. Lin, the microbiologist.
“[Most likely,] some of the other respiratory pathogens destroyed their upper respiratory defense mechanism, so now COVID just goes straight in,” he said.
Children may be the first group to take the hit, Mr. Lin said, but infections have also spread to adults.
Still striking an overall positive tone, Chinese media reports appear to be adjusting their message to lower expectations. A People’s Daily article dated Nov. 27 cited multiple experts who stated that there’s no “miracle drug” for upper respiratory illnesses.
Absent effective pharmaceutical cures, Beijing’s hospitals have been in a race to open departments offering traditional Chinese medical treatments. A hospital in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong is hiring experienced pediatricians in the face of the throngs of coughing children showing up at their doors.
CensorshipCOVID-19 is still the elephant in the room.
In that spirit, Chinese state media are only allowed to promote health tips directed at children, not adults, the person said.
In the northeastern province of Jilin, a woman whose son displayed white lung symptoms and was diagnosed with mycoplasma pneumonia said a doctor she was acquainted with told her that COVID-19 was the main cause.
“It has mutated and can’t be detected through testing,” the woman, Ms. Li, told NTD. “It’s just the government doesn’t allow people to talk about it.”
Ms. Jin, of central China’s Xi’an City, heard the same from her hospitalized nephew: The doctor told him that he had COVID-19.
“They just called it by a different name,” she told The Epoch Times, relaying the doctor’s words.
People involved in issuing death certificates, including multiple doctors, told The Epoch Times that they were ordered to not mention COVID-19.
“Write whatever cause, just not COVID,” one worker at a residential neighborhood in the northeastern city Changchun told The Epoch Times at the time.
On a death certificate for a local police station director’s father-in-law who died at home, she put down “brain stroke.”
If COVID-19 was specified in the paperwork, hospitals, which need to process the bodies of those who died at home, wouldn’t accept it, the worker said.
In some areas, even a public mention of sickness is taboo. At least two parents from Beijing and Tianjin told The Epoch Times that teachers have instructed parents to not mention their children’s sickness in the school chat groups for fear of “negatively impacting others.”
“Everything is a national secret,” Mr. Wei, from Beijing, told The Epoch Times.
Historical PatternIf the three-year pandemic has offered any guide, it’s that current scientific knowledge is far too limited to predict the future, Mr. Lin said.
“We need to be very humble in front of the power of nature,” he said, noting that he believes that it’s time to go beyond conventional public health perspectives to reflect on “what’s wrong in society and any fundamental ways to improve.”
He isn’t the only one taking a holistic approach.
Plagues and pestilence, Mr. Li wrote in a March 2020 essay titled “Rationality,” are aimed “at the decay of the human heart and morality as well as the massive build-up of karma.”
He advised people to “stay far away from the evil CCP and don’t align with the evil Party.”
Jonathan Liu, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner in Ontario, Canada, compared current China to the waning days of successive ancient imperial dynasties, when destructive plagues decimated the population and loosened the rulers’ control.
Epidemics were breaking out every two or three years during roughly the last three decades of the Eastern Han Dynasty, which was also accompanied by large-scale rebellions and fighting among military factions.
The largest one, which happened three years before the Han empire collapsed, saw people dying off by clans, and virtually every household was in mourning, according to writings by Cao Zhi, an accomplished poet and the son of one of the top three warlords of the time.
“Traditional Chinese culture emphasizes the oneness between man and Heaven,” Mr. Liu told The Epoch Times. “When people become morally corrupt, disasters follow. This is how the ancients look at this through the lens of retribution.”
China has had no shortage of issues over the past few years. Pandemic aside, a series of droughts and historic-scale flooding have destroyed crops, compounding fears of a food shortage.
With tourism down, the property sector in turmoil, and a growing foreign investment exodus, Beijing is deprived of its usual levers to relieve a faltering economy, while an all-time-high youth jobless rate is posing a political risk. Tensions with the United States haven’t helped.
The regime has deployed increasingly sophisticated surveillance technologies to monitor the Chinese populace, erasing, in near real time, any murmurs of dissent on and offline. But its control on the public appears to be waning.
In a series of sporadic protests that erupted in November 2022, young Chinese people nationwide fed up with the regime’s seemingly endless lockdowns took to the streets and, for the first time, called for the ruling party’s downfall.
Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas) considers such gestures more than symbolic.
“It shows where the people are, right?” he told NTD.
“Wherever in the world, you want your life, you want to have choices. That’s what they’re standing up for against the regime in China.”