76 Days

First published in the NASGP Newsletter in February 2021

We know, more or less, how British hospitals are coping with the pandemic. We live it, or we read about it or see it on the BBC documentaries filmed at the Royal Free Hospital.

But what was it like when covid struck Wuhan? What are our expectations and prejudices about how healthcare is delivered in Chinese hospitals?

76 Days tells us, candidly and without artifice. It is the work of film director Hao Wu. He was born in China and took a postgraduate degree in molecular biology from Brandeis University, Massachusetts. He became a film producer and director and now lives in New York. His documentaries deal with issues that are sensitive in Chinese society: a traditional family with a gay son, or the challenges facing Chinese born in the USA who go to live in China. His attempt to film underground ‘house’ churches landed him in prison without charge for 140 days.

Wu was in Shanghai when Wuhan locked down on 23rd January 2020. He wanted to make a film about what was going on there. Unable to enter the sealed-off city he returned to the USA and recruited two film makers in Wuhan whom he supervised remotely while they filmed in four hospitals.

Repressive regimes are uncomfortable with fly-on-the-wall documentaries, particularly from a director with form. His project did attract government attention, and one of his co-directors opted not to be named in the credits.

The film covers the 76 days of total lockdown. Apart from a few outside shots we spend the whole 90 minutes inside hospitals, mostly in their intensive care units. There are subtitles but no voice-over narration or talking heads. Wu decided to let the scenes speak for themselves. And they do, eloquently.

“In March 2020 British hospitals were struggling to get adequate PPE. In Wuhan all the staff are in full hazmat gear.

The hospitals look very similar to any modern hospital in the west, except for the frightened crowds hammering on doors. The staff promise they will be admitted in turn and have to lock the doors. As in Britain the workload and the tragedies in Wuhan threaten to overwhelm the services and the staff. Nurses call to colleagues for urgently needed equipment. Two exhausted doctors slump on chairs in a corridor. But some things are different: in March 2020 British hospitals were struggling to get adequate PPE. In Wuhan all the staff are in full hazmat gear. They take a moment to relax and have a bit of fun drawing colourful doodles on each other’s suits.

It’s difficult for their patients to recognise them, and even harder for us to tell them apart, but it doesn’t matter. What stands out is their compassion. An old lady can’t bear being separated from her family. A nurse holds her hand and says “While you are here we are your family”. A man with early dementia is desperate to go home. He keeps wandering around and is steered back to his bed – in the end he is reluctant to leave and is cheered off by the staff. An elderly lady is deteriorating. A blown-up glove is used as a cushion for her ECMO tubing and someone writes a get-well message on it. A young woman with covid has a caesarean section; her husband briefly holds his daughter before she is quarantined. The day she is discharged her mother is finally able to see for herself that her baby is indeed pretty.

And phones, phones, phones. Staff hold phones so that husbands and wives, on different wards, can talk to each other or see their grandchild at home. Somewhere, a mobile phone rings and rings. Its owner has died. A member of staff sits at a desk with a pile of plastic bags containing dead patients’ phones and personal effects. She rings their relatives and gently tells them that their loved one has died, and explains how they can collect their belongings. One bag contains a bracelet. The patient’s hand was too swollen to slip if off so – against the rules – a staff member cut it off so that her daughter could have it.

Wu’s film does not tackle the questions that much of the rest of the world is asking: where did the virus come from and how much did the Chinese government cover up? But two TV documentaries screened in January 2021 investigate this. BBC2’s 54 Days begins the story on 1st December 2019, the day the index case was identified in Wuhan, and ends on 23rd January 2020 when Wuhan entered lockdown – the day that 76 Days begins. 54 Days examines what people in Wuhan knew: “Everyone knew it was human-to-human transmission, even a fool would know”. Yet the Chinese government suppressed information. TV news insisted there was no problem. In desperation Chinese medical professionals and journalists passed information and pleas to people they knew outside China.

ITV’s Outbreak: The Virus That Shook the World covers some of the same ground but also reviews how other countries managed the pandemic. China’s failures infected the world, but the USA, Brazil, Britain and others also took decisions which have devastated their populations and economies. The Chinese New Year celebrations, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Rio Carnival, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, all were allowed to go ahead despite the rising rates of covid, and Christmas here was only curtailed at the last moment. As a commentator said, “Pre 20/1/20 China could have done better, after 20/1/20 the rest of the world should have done better”. As in the west, by and large people reacted well; their governments let them down.

Observing orchestrated political gatherings in Tiananmen Square and the Beijing Olympic opening spectacular it’s easy to see the Chinese people as automatons. 76 Days is a reminder that, whatever a country’s political colour, doctors and nurses round the world share a humanity and a determination to care for their patients, whatever the odds.

At the end of January 2021 the total covid death toll reported in UK was 1,554 deaths per million. China reported four per million. (Figures from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resources Center)

You can rent 76 Days from various streaming services.