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Adam Minter

China Had a Doctor Crisis Before Coronavirus Hit

Reform efforts have done little to fix a system that’s overburdened and rife with kickbacks and mistrust.

Not the best working conditions.

Not the best working conditions.

Photographer: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

In Wuhan, hospital corridors are filled with patients who spend days and nights awaiting the chance to see a doctor capable of diagnosing and arranging treatment for the new coronavirus. In some cases, the lines stretch out the hospital doors, forcing new arrivals to either go elsewhere — potentially spreading the virus further — or remain amid a concentrated group of people who might already have it. The overworked doctors are beginning to fray and melt down, if increasingly common eyewitness videos circulating on Chinese social media are to be believed.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to highlight what’s wrong with a medical system. In China, however, the coronavirus hasn’t uncovered any surprises. Instead, it’s thrown a spotlight on problems that have festered for decades, including the lack of a primary care system, and — most critically — a shortage of qualified medical personnel. Although reform efforts have been underway for years, the situation in Wuhan is a stark reminder of how far China must go to meet the minimal medical standards expected by its fast-growing middle class.