China’s blood banks are battling supply shortages as a wave of Covid-19 cases keeps donors away, putting an already strained medical system under further stress.
At least seven provincial and municipal governments have reported a drop in blood donations in recent weeks that reduced their inventory to as little as 16 per cent of levels from last year.
The shortage comes as Covid cases surge across the country after Beijing this month abruptly lifted its strict policy of containing the virus.
The outbreak has led many potential blood donors to either become ineligible after testing positive for Covid or reluctant to venture outside for fear of infection. Streets in the capital remain empty and most businesses are closed, with unofficial estimates suggesting about 40 per cent of Beijing’s 22mn people have contracted the Omicron variant.
China on Monday said two people had died of Covid the prior day in Beijing, marking the first officially reported Covid-related deaths in the country since December 3.
Officials have covered up the real death toll in the country as Covid sweeps through major cities. An employee at one Beijing funeral home told the FT last Wednesday they had cremated the bodies of at least 30 Covid victims.
With hospitals overwhelmed by Covid cases and blood inventories low, health officials have told also doctors to put off “unnecessary” surgeries that require blood transfusions and warned of a crisis for critically ill patients.
“It is up to the doctor to decide when the surgery should be conducted and how badly it requires blood transfusion,” said an official at Shandong province’s blood centre.
Analysts said the dire situation highlighted Beijing’s lack of preparation before relaxing pandemic controls that had constrained the world’s second-largest economy. Critics accuse the government of not using the time bought by its strict Covid elimination strategy — in place for nearly three years — to increase booster vaccination rates among the elderly and better prepare the health system for an exit wave of cases.
“This is an unintended consequence of getting rid of zero-Covid without a road map,” said Yanzhong Huang, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “Such secondary disasters may keep popping up.”
As donations shrink, blood banks have struggled to meet demand for life-saving surgeries. In the eastern province of Jiangsu, home to 80mn people, blood donations have fallen more than half this month compared with the same time last year, according to the local health authority.
In a public call for donations on Tuesday, the province’s blood centre said its Type A blood reserve could last for three days and those of other types less than five days. “Our inventory has dropped below the safety level,” the centre said.
The situation was even worse in Shandong, where inventories were 16 per cent of the level from December last year and daily donations had dropped to 20,000ml from a range of 100,000ml to 120,000ml the previous year, an official at the provincial blood centre said. The official added the centre was having trouble finding donors.
Jessica Li, a Shandong resident, cancelled a scheduled blood donation last week out of fear of contracting coronavirus. “I am not going to do a public service at the expense of my health,” she said. “I will do so when the outbreak is over.”
The central government announced on Saturday that most recovered Covid patients could donate blood seven days after testing negative, down from six months previously.
However, health officials do not expect the shortage to dissipate as China’s Covid outbreak shows little signs of easing.
“We need to wait out the storm before things get better,” said the official at Shandong’s blood centre.
Ryan McMorrow contributed reporting from Beijing.