• The hard and dangerous work of battling China’s coronavirus epidemic is being done mainly by the country’s medics – many of whom live nowhere near the affected areas.
  • Reports, videos, and staff themselves have shown the scale of the problem: Supplies and protective gear are scarce, and the workload is enormous.
  • As many as 1,000 medical workers have themselves caught the virus while treating it. Several have died.
  • Li Wenliang, 34, who helped first raise the alarm about the coronavirus and was punished for it, died of the virus early Friday.
  • These are the sacrifices that China’s medical workers have made, and continue to make.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Doctors and medical workers are feeling the toll of the deadly Wuhan coronavirus more than anybody except their patients.

As of Friday morning local time the virus, named after its epicenter in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, had killed 635 people and infected nearly 31,000. As many as 1,000 of those infected were medical workers.

Some workers who contracted the disease have died. More still are working in dire conditions, without the protection or resources they need to control an epidemic. Here is the situation on the ground:

Doctors in Wuhan, which was placed under a sweeping quarantine on January 24, have been faced with far more patients than they can handle.

Foto: The scene at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital on January 25, one day after the city was put into lockdown.sourceHector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

About when the quarantine began, one doctor told BBC News: “The hospitals have been flooding with patients, there are thousands, I haven’t seen so many before.

"I am scared because this is a new virus and the figures are alarming."

Early in the outbreak, scientists had not yet realized that the virus could spread from human to human. During that time, many doctors didn't wear protective gear.

China has relatively few doctors per capita compared with countries like the US, and those it does have are less well-trained.


According to Business Insider's Aria Bendix, China has less than two physicians for every 10,000 residents.

Only about 60% have undergraduate degrees, and only about 10% have graduate degrees, a radical difference from in European and North American health systems.

Wuhan's medical staff were soon overwhelmed. In response at least 6,000 medics from other parts of China were sent in, despite the risks.

Foto: Medical staff and security personnel keeping relatives away from Wuhan's Jinyintan hospital toward the start of the outbreak.sourceReuters/Stringer/File Photo

These images show military medics volunteering to go to Wuhan:

On January 29, Business Insider's Will Martin reported that China had had deployed 4,130 medics from other parts of China to Hubei province, which contains Wuhan.

It was planning to increase the figure to 6,000, according to the country's National Health Commission.

Even with enough doctors, many hospitals were desperately short of supplies. This included protective gear for the medics.

Foto: A medical materials warehouse in Wuhan on February 4.sourceCostfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

"Many were not initially informed about the potential for people-to-person transmission, and even now we don't have enough protective gear, test kits, and other supplies," one Wuhan doctor told the South China Morning Post on January 24.

There were also too few testing kits for patients, making it hard to distinguish a coronavirus case from any other flu or cold.

Patients in Wuhan came to consider getting access to a testing kit as being like winning the lottery.

Some hospitals have been pleading for donations of supplies from ordinary people. A social-media post from the Wuhan Children's Hospital, cited by the BBC, said simply: "Medical supplies are in short supply - help!"

Some staff complained on social media that hospitals were even running out of food and drink.

Wuhan's hospitals also lacked beds. On January 23, China announced it would build two new hospitals to cope. One opened February 3, the second on February 6.

Foto: An image from Chinese TV news showing the part-constructed Huoshenshan hospital in Wuhan.sourceCNTN

As the outbreak has dragged on, China has pledged to commit even more people and resources. But there are still difficulties.


A New York Times article dated February 6 cited reports of shortages at a makeshift quarantine facility in Wuhan.

It said an exhibition center, converted to house patients, had inadequate heating, unreliable electricity, and evident shortages of medical staff and equipment.

The Times report said Chinese authorities were becoming more militant about stifling criticism of the government's response, making it harder to work out which places had shortages.

Medical workers have been under enormous stress.

Foto: sourceSTR/AFP via Getty Images

This video shows one medical worker having a meltdown:

The unidentified doctor at the Wuhan No. 5 Hospital made an exasperated call to a supervisor, not long before the Lunar New Year.

He said he had just done four days' worth of work without a break, according to The Washington Post.

"I don't want to do this job any more. Just fire me! Kick me out, send me back home," he said.

"Don't I want to go home to celebrate the new year? Don't we want to live, too?"

Working conditions have been desperate. Some doctors resorted to wearing adult diapers because they had too little time to even use the bathroom.

Foto: Medical staff in Wuhan, China, during the coronavirus outbreak.sourceTHE CENTRAL HOSPITAL OF WUHAN VIA WEIBO /via REUTERS

The situation was also reported by The Washington Post.

The newspaper said a second reason to use adult diapers was to avoid the delicate process of taking off a hazmat suit, which could tear and ruin it.

Countermeasures took a physical toll. Medics' hands were bleached from constant disinfectant, and the lines from face masks dug into their skin.

Foto: A doctor being sprayed with disinfectant while leaving a hotel in Wuhan.sourceFeature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The precautions do not always work. Posts on Chinese social media suggest that as many as 1,100 medical workers have caught the virus — almost one in 30 of the total case load.

Foto: An exhibition center converted into a hospital in Wuhan on February 5.sourceSTR/AFP/Getty Images

One doctor who contracted the disease locked herself in her apartment and didn't even tell her family.

Foto: A medical worker attending to a patient in the intensive-care unit at Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University in Wuhan, China, on January 24.sourceXiong Qi/Xinhua/AP

An unnamed doctor shut herself away because of an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, according to a Beijing-based therapist named Candice Qin, who described her case to The Washington Post.

"I think it is a strain for every doctor and every nurse in Wuhan, both physically and mentally," Qin told The Post. "We know that patients are worried, but we should bear in mind that doctors are just as human as well."

A seven-months-pregnant nurse who helped fight the outbreak also got infected.

Foto: A baby wearing a face mask in Hong Kong.sourceAnthony Wallace/AFP/Getty

The nurse ended up passing the disease to her 70-year-old mother.

There was no space for her in a nearby hospital, and the woman resorted to posting on social media to shame officials into admitting her.

Source: The Washington Post

Perhaps the most keenly felt loss in China, however, was that of Li Wenliang, a doctor who died February 7 at the age of 34.

Foto: Healthcare workers in Hong Kong giving first aid during the virus outbreak.sourceMiguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Li caught the virus while treating patients in Wuhan for weeks. He died at about 4 a.m. local time on February 7.

His loss was all the more painful because Li had tried to raise awareness of the virus early on but was punished by officials who wanted to suppress the news.

In December, when the virus was just being discovered, Li alerted a group of alumni from his medical school.

But he was taken in by the police in Wuhan and forced to sign a letter acknowledging he was "making false comments" about the burgeoning epidemic.

After his death, tributes to Li went viral on China's Weibo social-media network, despite the strict censorship in the country.