Three Years After Wuhan, China Pays Tribute to Frontline Medical Workers Once Again

With the end of China’s ‘zero Covid’ policy, the war against Covid is no longer mainly fought in Chinese communities: hospitals have now become the main Covid-19 battleground. Similar to the 2020 Wuhan outbreak, Chinese media are again saluting frontline healthcare workers, with news narratives focusing on their sacrifice and selflessness.

In January 2020, paying respects to the frontline medical workers, the “heroes of the city,” was an important recurring theme in Chinese media reports and in social media posts about China’s Covid outbreak and the ensuing lockdown in Wuhan.

The CGTN annual Spring Festival Gala of 2020, a 4-hour long show with a viewership of one billion, included a segment on the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak and showed scenes from inside a Wuhan hospital as a tribute to all the medical workers working day and night.

State media outlet CCTV also issued propaganda posters featuring medical workers, saying “1.4 billion people salute you.”

“1.4 billion Chinese salute you”

Other visual propaganda in times of the 2020 Covid crisis, by People’s Daily for example, also saw a strong focus on Wuhan medical workers, often highlighting their selflessness and the sacrifices they made for the greater good.

Later on, the movie Chinese Doctors (中国医生) would come out, a medical drama that featured the story of a group of doctors at a Wuhan hospital, being the first in the world to deal with the novel coronavirus. The movie showed the struggles of medical front-line workers facing a virus that would change the world as we know it.

‘Nìxíngzhě’ was a 2020 buzzword to describe the frontline heroes going ‘backward’, facing the problems that others are turning away from.

The word nìxíngzhě (逆行者) also became a buzzword in 2020, meaning those going against the tide. It was often used by state media to describe and praise frontline workers as the ‘people going backward’ being the brave ones who are willing to face the challenges when everyone else is turning away.



They were not born as heroes, but chose to be fearless


Since the easing of China’s ‘zero Covid’ regulations and the start of the major Covid-19 outbreak across China, frontline medical workers are again prominently featured in Chinese media.

Although appreciation for the so-called ‘dabai’ (大白, ‘big whites’) – a nickname for volunteers, community workers and other anti-epidemic workers in hazmat suits, – was often propagated by Chinese media during the 2022 lockdowns of Xi’an and other cities, the focus was not on the hospitals as those were not the main places where the battle against Covid was taking place. The war against Covid was mainly fought inside the neighborhoods, communities, and city districts.

This has now changed. As Covid-positive patients are flocking to medical centers – sometimes even lining up in front of fever clinics and emergency rooms, – Chinese hospitals have become a new battleground of Covid-19.

The Covid-19 human interest stories by Chinese media outlets now often focus on the perspective of the medical workers, the challenges they face, and the hard work they deliver.

Chinese state media outlet Xinhua launched the hashtag “Pay Tribute to Every Warrior Dressed in White” (#致敬每一位白衣卫士#) on 16 December 2022, with other news outlets publishing similar hashtags, such as “Salute to the Healthcare Workers on the Frontline” (#向坚守在一线的医护人员致敬#).

One Weibo account under the People’s Liberation Army also posted a collection of videos showing doctors and nurses struggling at the job due to exhaustion, praising their persistence and reminding people that they are also just regular people who were “not born as heroes, but chose to be fearless” (#医护人员也是一个个普通人#).

One video showed a nurse administering IV fluids to patients while walking and working with her own IV pole.

One other hashtag that recently went viral on Chinese social media is “Medical Staff’s ‘Moments’ [WeChat Timeline] Will Make You Tear Up” (#上海医护朋友圈让人泪目#), a Weibo topic initiated by Eastday News (东方网) that spiked on 28 December and received a over 190 million views within a few days.

The related video report by Eastday News is about the Wechat posts of Shanghai medical workers in the midst of the peak of Covid-19 infections in the city. It featured Wechat posts by doctors and nurses working at the Huashan Hospital, Hongqiao Hospital, and at the fever clinics or emergency department of other hospitals. One healthcare worker shared how he had barely recovered from Covid himself while already working a 24-hour shift.

Another video from a hospital in Suichang County, Zhejiang, showed a doctor at the emergency department who had just tested positive for Covid one day earlier and was continuing his work despite being feverish and suffering from body aches and a bad cough. While talking to a patient, the young doctor breaks down in tears when the patient tells him to take leave and rest, saying all of his colleagues have tested positive and that there is nobody to replace him.

Some media also publish stories about everyday work at the IC units, such as explaining the way in which medical staff members turn (overweight) patients from back to stomach or vice versa through the “candy-style flip” (#医院自创糖果翻身法为230斤患者翻身#).

Many news videos published on Chinese social media show medical workers fainting during work shifts, or struggling to continue work as they are also sick themselves. These videos all show the sacrifice and selflessness of these hard-working medical workers.

One Chinese news outlet reported about a 87-year-old retired doctor returning to work at a hospital in Lishui, Zhejiang. Because he was not used to the new computer systems, he was a bit slower than the younger doctors, but his dedication was appreciated by the patients.

The 87-year-old was not the only doctor returning to the frontline; multiple places across China allegedly saw retired healthcare workers returning to work to help out during this Covid outbreak (#多地退休医护人员重回一线战斗#)

To further show appreciation for the efforts of China’s doctors and nurses, some regions are now giving out special benefits or bonuses for local medical workers. In Zhejiang, for example, some frontline medical workers reportedly received a bonus for their contributions to the fight against the epidemic (抗疫补助). The Jinhua First Hospital gave a 10,000 yuan ($1450) bonus to each employee (#浙江多地一线医护收到抗疫补助#).

In Hangzhou, several schools and kindergartens launched an initiative to welcome children of medical workers at school during the winter holidays, at no extra costs for the parents (#杭州多所学校给医护子女免费托管#). Shanghai local health authorities also announced a 6000 yuan ($870) bonus for frontline medical staff (#上海一线医护收到6000元补贴#).

“I salute the medical workers who stay on the job!”, one Weibo user wrote (“致敬坚守岗位的医护人员!”): “You work so hard.”

Despite all the praise for the medical workers in the hospitals, some staff members reminded people that there is still a long way to go when it comes to medical staff actually getting the respect they deserve.

Throughout the years, the social problem of patient-doctor violence has often become the topic of online discussions (read more), and one doctor from Hubei recently wrote that doctors are still being scolded and face harassment from patients, especially in stressful times.

“It’s been three years,” he writes: “and soon we’ll enter the fourth year [since the start of the epidemic]. If you are an ordinary person and you’re truly grateful to the doctors and nurses, then also show them your respect in ordinary times. If you are an employer and you really feel your medical staff works hard, then also give them more time off or more bonuses. Actual actions are always more real.”

Read more about Zero Covid ending here.

By Manya Koetse 


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