Has the Coronavirus Reached Its Peak in China?

Though the number of new cases has dipped, China’s health care system is still under significant strain.

Foreign Policy
Date: February 12, 2020
By: James Pal[mer

BEIJING, CHINA – FEBRUARY 12: A Chinese guard wears a protective mask as he sleeps in a chair near a footbridge on February 12, 2020 in Beijing China. entering and advised their citizens against travel to China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

New Virus Cases Are Slowing, but China’s System Is Straining

The number of new coronavirus infections in China has dipped over the last few of days, but it’s unclear whether this is the result of containment measures taking effect or a statistical inaccuracy: There could be a backlog of diagnostic test kits from the weekend. The decision by Chinese authorities, against World Health Organization guidelines, to eliminate cases where asymptomatic victims test positive has caused concern. The virus remains effectively the only story in China, with more than 1,100 deaths confirmed and nearly 45,000 cases.

Though China is nominally back at work, few are in the office. Lockdown measures are extended daily, with many cities closely monitoring compound residents and imposing exit and entry requirements. Schools and universities are holding classes online. These restrictions aren’t likely to end this month and perhaps not even before April. Flights to China have been dramatically reduced. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has encouraged nonemergency staff to leave, ordering mandatory evacuation of family members under 21.

Is containment working? The number of new virus cases outside of Hubei province, where the outbreak began, has diminished over the last week. It’s unclear whether containment is working or cases are going unconfirmed. Doctors in Hunan, Hebei, and Jiangxi provinces, speaking by phone or mobile chat, said this week that their hospitals were holding several dozen patients in quarantine but there was a shortage of the kits required to test them.

Strained system. As hospitals struggle to deal with the virus, the health care system in China has been put under extreme strain. From dialysis to food poisoning to heart attacks, it’s increasingly difficult for patients to see a doctor. It can take hours to get through on the emergency number in Hubei, and other cities are seeing serious delays. If containment works, the secondary death toll could exceed the number of those who die from the virus directly.