March 24, 2023

HONG KONG — This summer, global heat records have been climbing.

Health workers in China have been particularly hard hit, as they continue to test the masses for Covid-19, wearing protective gear from head to toe, and enduring relentless heat waves in a series of seemingly never-ending outbreaks.

Dressed in protective suits known locally as “Dabai,” the army of workers tasked with enforcing China’s zero-coronavirus policy has spent much of this year toiling in temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

“The internal conditions are airtight,” Joshua Liu, a health worker from Shanghai, told NBC News by phone last month. “Once the suits are on, we can’t eat, drink and go to the toilet.”

Liu, who helps medical workers collect coronavirus test samples and register residents’ information, said workers were “sweating profusely” and “wrinkled fingers and palms” when they took them out.

“I could feel my skin breathing and sweating,” he said. “Every day when I finally get off work, the only thing I want to do is take a shower and go to bed.”

In June, a new coronavirus testing site in Beijing was installed with air conditioning as the summer heats up.
In June, a new coronavirus testing site in Beijing was installed with air conditioning as the summer heats up.Wu Hanguan/Associated Press

The use of “big white” suddenly came into the spotlight last month. video Nurse Xie Chunhua was lying on a bed in the emergency room with twitching limbs after the release by officials from Nanchang County in eastern Jiangxi province went viral on Chinese social media.

The text in the video said Chunhua, who was wearing a protective suit, was tested for the new coronavirus at the Nanchang County People’s Hospital for several days when she suffered from heat stroke and fainted. The video said the temperature outside the facility was just over 100 degrees.

Although she later recovered, the video sparked an online backlash and was later removed by officials.

But by then, it had been widely shared and viewed by millions on China’s largest microblogging site and other social media channels, some of whom accused the government of incompetence.

a regular sight

In January 2020, shortly after the first outbreak of the new coronavirus in Wuhan, health workers followed guidelines for protective clothing issued by China’s National Health Commission, and the “Great White Shark” has become a frequent visitor to the new coronavirus testing sites.

In Shanghai, Liu said, he and his colleagues often wore these body-covering garments during the city’s two-month COVID-19 lockdown from March to May, when authorities pursued China’s uncompromising “zero outbreak” policy and shut down Schools, malls, convenience stores and gyms have been shut down, and city bus, subway and ferry services have been halted.

In the following months, amid more localized community lockdowns, when residents were prevented from leaving and entering their residential areas without a permit, Liu said he and his colleagues helped carry out large-scale Testing and contact tracing, while also helping enforce strict quarantine requirements.

But as summer approaches, temperatures start to rise across China, with mercury often reaching 100 degrees in Shanghai. The commercial hub of 25 million people has reached temperatures of 104 degrees seven times so far, beating the five-day record set in 2013.

As a result, heatstroke began to trend on Chinese social media, with people discussing symptoms including headaches, vomiting and fever, or in more severe cases, people might have convulsions or a coma.

For Janice Ho, a postdoctoral researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, it’s a “good thing” that people are looking for the word because it helps them “be more aware that heat actually has an effect on death.”

When the core body temperature reaches 100 degrees, “your organs will start to fail because it’s too hot to function, and your body may stop regulating itself,” adds Ho, whose research focuses on heat and public health. “That’s when it becomes lethal. It’s very dangerous to end up dying from it.”

The heat has killed several people, including a 56-year-old construction worker in Xi’an. In July, he was admitted to hospital due to multiple organ failure and severe heat stroke, with a body temperature of 109.4 degrees China Youth Daily report.

After Chunhua’s video was released, China’s National Center for Infectious Diseases published an article saying that wearing “protective clothing (commonly known as ‘big white’)…will greatly increase the risk of heat stroke.” Instead, medical staff are advised to wear lighter, more breathable surgical gowns .

But the temperature has continued to soar since then, and on August 12 first The National Meteorological Center of China issued a “high temperature red warning”. That means four or more provinces have recorded temperatures over 100 degrees within 48 hours, with more than 10 provinces expected to reach 100 to 108 degrees.

It’s been there for 12 days until August 23rd.

For Ho, this suggests that extreme heat should be taken as seriously as other extreme weather events.

“We’ve taken drastic measures to prevent people from being threatened by typhoons or heavy rain, but we’re not dealing with the heat in the same way,” she said.

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