Rural residents worry for elderly as COVID rips across China

By Martin Quin Pollard, Xiaoyu Yin and Tingshu Wang

LEZHI (Reuters) - In a busy village clinic in Lezhi county in southwest China's Sichuan province on Thursday, 59-year-old Yang waited anxiously as her husband received an intravenous drip in the adjacent room.

For more than a week he has had a fever, chills, a cough, and other COVID-like symptoms, she said, like millions of other Chinese caught in a coronavirus wave after authorities dismantled zero-COVID policies this month.

Experts say the elderly in rural areas may be particularly vulnerable because of their vaccine hesitancy and inadequate medical resources. Next month's Lunar New Year festival, when hundreds of millions will travel to their hometowns, will add to the risk.

"I'm worried, I'm scared," an emotional Yang said between frequent glances at her husband, a construction worker surnamed Xiong. "This isn't just a light illness like they are saying online."

Xiong, who has received three shots of China's domestically produced vaccine, was confident he would feel better soon. But he was concerned about reinfection and says things were better before opening up.

"Practically everyone at my construction site has been infected," he said. "Since the opening up, the virus has spread everywhere."

Yang and Xiong, like several others interviewed for this article, declined to give their full name, a common practice in China for people who agree to speak to reporters.

Next to Xiong in the small office-sized treatment room in the Kongque village clinic four other patients, all but one elderly and all on IV drips, lay coughing intermittently.

"It's a bit worse than the original cold," said Tang Shunping, 80. "I was taking cold and flu supplements and I was fine, but now they don't work anymore."

On the other side of the room, Chen Lifen, 86, who suffers from other conditions including heart disease and high blood pressure, was accompanied by her daughter and full-time caregiver, Liao Xiaofeng.

Chen has not been vaccinated. The family had concerns after hearing stories online of possible side effects, Liao said.

Several locals in the area, around 90 minutes east of Sichuan province's capital, Chengdu, said that although the virus was everywhere, it is "as the state says, just like a cold," reflecting the recent about-face in messaging from Chinese authorities.

PATIENT NUMBERS

Chen Changying, a doctor in Yongquan, a small town near Lezhi county, said that since China ended nearly three years of COVID curbs this month, patient numbers have more than doubled to around 100 a day.

Most patients have the same symptoms suggesting a COVID infection, and most are elderly, she said.

"I'm definitely worried," the doctor said. "Many elderly people have underlying diseases such as chronic bronchitis and this virus can easily lead to a lung infection."

Amid a nationwide wave of infections, which experts say could have reached hundreds of millions, China is scrambling to reinforce overwhelmed hospitals and restock pharmacies.

Paxlovid, the Pfizer-made COVID medicine, is in particularly high demand, with many Chinese attempting to get the drug abroad and have it shipped to China.

China's top health body this week instructed local authorities "promote" and organise traditional Chinese medicine to treat COVID, state media reported on Thursday.

PHARMACIES SHORT OF DRUGS

57-year-old Wang, who has run a Chinese and Western medicine pharmacy in Yongquan with her husband for decades, said that the weeks since reopening have been the busiest they've ever known, and that drugs are in short supply.

Many people have stockpiled medicines because of the sudden wave of infections, she said.

In Lezhi county, Liao, a farmer with two children whose husband is working in a faraway province, bought an oxygen concentrator online to help with her mother's breathing.

Liao does not plan to take her mother to the county hospital or a facility in a bigger city because she worries it will be costly and difficult to see a doctor.

She and others in Lezhi said things were better when COVID curbs were in place.

"It used to be good when the virus was well controlled," Liao said. "When it was controlled, there was no such phenomenon. Now they don't manage it anymore, so now all the young and old are getting infected."

(Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard, Xiaoyu Yin and Tingshu Wang; Writing by Martin Quin Pollard; Editing by Sumeet Chatterjee and Gerry Doyle)