Photo Credit: VCG
SARS and the construction of China’s first epidemic hospital

On January 28, 2020, 18 million viewers tuned to watch the livestream of a rapid construction project. The grainy drone footage showed 7,000 workers toiling day and night through Chinese New Year to turn a patch of Wuhan earth into an emergency hospital for Covid-19 patients.

The 1,000-bed hospital, named Huoshenshan or “Fire God Mountain,” covered 25,000 square meters and was completed in just 10 days, opening on February 2. A second, 1,600-bed facility, Leishenshan (“Thunder God Mountain”), was constructed in 18 days and opened on February 8. Both hospitals are based on the “Xiaotangshan model,” named after the emergency facility that was built in just seven days in a Beijing suburb during the 2003 SARS epidemic.

On April 20, 2003, the mayor of Beijing and China’s health minister were both fired for covering up the true extent of the SARS crisis, which emerged in China in November 2002. On the same day, the newly appointed health minister, Gao Qiang, announced that there were over 300 cases of SARS in Beijing, rather than the 37 previously stated. By April 30, the number had risen to 1,440, including 270 infected physicians.

Worried about the lack of beds in the capital’s hospitals, officials considered housing SARS patients in “sanatoriums,” rest homes for workers of state institutions. While inspecting the sanatorium at Xiaotangshan, though, officials found the land to be flat and open, and opted to build a new, centralized hospital to handle all the SARS cases in the capital.

Work began the next day, with 4,000 laborers and 500 machines committed to the project by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and the Beijing government. Construction used lightweight materials and prefabricated structures, and buildings were limited to one story in height.

Inside the facility, three zones were established: a controlled “polluted” zone where infectious patients were housed in strict quarantine, a “buffer” zone where medical staff could live, and a “clean” zone for non-medical staff. Protective gear, X-ray machines, CT scanners, and surgical supplies were installed. The site had 1,000 beds, and was reportedly the world’s largest infectious disease hospital at the time.

Over 51 days in 2003, Xiaotangshan received 680 patients, around one-seventh of China’s total SARS cases. Remarkably, none of the physicians who worked at Xiaotangshan became infected. The hospital’s then director, Zhang Yanling, told Phoenix News that without Xiaotangshan, Beijing would have had at least 2,000 more SARS cases and another 200 deaths.

The hospital was quietly sealed off after the last patient left in June 2003, and slated for demolition—one visitor in 2009 described it as deserted and “a good place to film a horror movie” in an online blog post. But on January 30, 2020, it was announced that Xiaotangshan would reopen to treat Covid-19 patients, once again placing the hospital on the frontline of epidemic control in the capital. Unlike in 2003, though, it is not alone—but joined by dozens of “Xiaotangshans” in Henan, Hunan, Guizhou, Guangxi, Shaanxi, Shanghai, and, of course, Wuhan.

Rapid Response is a story from our issue, “Contagion.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


author Sam Davies

Sam Davies is the managing editor at The World of Chinese. He writes mainly about Chinese society, especially life outside the biggest cities. His pieces touching on diverse topics from the future of China’s ski industry to efforts to prevent juvenile crime.

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