Yet in the neglected rural town of Xin’an, the sparsely equipped local hospital was operating at well below full capacity.
In a poorly heated room near reception, around half a dozen elderly people huddled in thick overcoats, drips protruding from their arms.
But most of the seats were unoccupied, and the pressure on staff appeared far lower than their municipal counterparts.
LACK OF PROGRESS
“What we are seeing in rural China epitomises the lack of progress in China’s healthcare reform,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council of Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan US think tank.
“People dissatisfied with the poor quality of rural healthcare will bypass (local providers) to seek care in urban hospitals.”
As the initial wave starts to ebb, the pressure on some facilities may be receding – even as the seriously sick continue to flock to municipal institutions.
Many rural residents, meanwhile, struggle for nearby access to doctors and medicines, and public health literacy is often patchy.
A local shopkeeper in Xin’an said a COVID-19 outbreak had swept through the settlement of around 30,000 people in December, but “the worst of it has passed”.
And hospital staff and local residents there said those requiring treatment for severe illness usually made the 90-minute journey up the highway to Tianjin or pushed on to Baoding, a city some 200 kilometres away where a recent outbreak overwhelmed hospitals.
Medical services in mid-size municipalities also appear to be less stretched than in China’s megacities.
In Tangshan – a smaller industrial city of 7.7 million people – the scene was calmer than that in Tianjin about two hours away.
Around two dozen patients of advanced age filled the resuscitation ward of a central hospital, with one nurse saying they had “all tested positive” for COVID-19.
Only three or four patients occupied makeshift beds in the corridors outside.