In February, China achieved an impressive construction feat that caught the world’s attention: Amid growing cases of COVID-19, China built two hospitals in the pandemic epicenter, Wuhan, in less than two weeks to isolate and treat COVID-19 patients. Composed largely of prefabricated parts and components, the two-story structures have been dubbed “instant hospitals”. NPR reported on facilities just like the first one opened. But now the virus is under control in Wuhan, and life is more or less back to normal. So what happened to these “instant hospitals”?
The 1,000-bed Huoshenshan Hospital (meaning Fire God Mountain) opened on February 3. Five days later, its sister hospital, Leishenshan (meaning Thunder God Mountain), opened with 1,500 additional beds. Even if some reports indicate that Leishenshan was slower to fill up than Huoshenshan, according to Chinese state mediait quickly ran at near full capacity as well.
“Most of the news that have [these hospitals] were state-run news in China, so there is little information about their actual effectiveness, as there is a propensity to only spread the word about the best side of the news, ”said Raymond Pan, the design director at HMC Architects. In 2011, Pan won an award for his design of Shunde Hospital at Southern Medical University in China, where the first outbreak of SARS occurred in 2003. At the request of Chinese health authorities, his design allows the hospital to easily isolate any part of the hospital in the event of an infectious disease outbreak.
Huoshenshan and Leishenshan were among 40 hospitals in Wuhan designated for the serious and critical care of COVID-19 patients. Sixteen other makeshift hospitals have been installed in converted gymnasiums, convention and exhibition centers to isolate and treat mild cases, so these patients do not infect their families.
The vigorous efforts appear to have worked, as a month later, on March 10, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the disease had been “essentially braked” in Wuhan and its province, Hubei. On that day, the 16 makeshift hospitals were all closed.
Huoshenshan and Leishenshan continued to operate for another month, after which they sent their last batch of patients to regular hospitals and were officially sealed and “retired” April 15. According to state mediaLeishenshan ended up treating a total of 2,011 patients in the two months he was operational. Government officials say there are no plans to demolish hospitals yet and they can be “reactivated at any time” if a second wave of infections strikes.
“Although health workers [in these two field hospitals] returned to their place of work, the equipment and facilities are still there so that, if necessary, the workers can be mobilized again and the hospital can be reopened ”, says Yanzhong Huang, Senior Global Health Researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations.
It is still unclear what happens after the pandemic, but if the hospitals predecessor is any indication, not much.
During the SARS outbreak in 2003, China built Xiaotangshan Hospital on the outskirts of Beijing in just seven days from prefabricated components. This hospital is what inspired Wuhan’s “instant hospitals”.
According to Huang and state media, Xiaotangshan – like the two in Wuhan – was never meant to be a fully functioning hospital. Rather, it was built as a temporary field hospital that was not supposed to last more than three years. During the outbreak, it admitted a seventh of the country’s SARS patients over about two months, or about 700 people. And then he sat down abandoned.
In 2010, the government announced that the facility would be demolished, but apparently he was not “completely demolished” because in January 2020, renovations started to revitalize Xiaotangshan for COVID-19 patients. Again, his tour of duty did not last long – only a month and a half. On April 29, the hospital was closed again.
“If there was a negative impact [of the abandoned hospital sitting there for 17 years], it has not been made public, ”Pan says, but he has concerns. “Once a building deteriorates, there are environmental issues,” he says, such as pollution when pieces of the building collapse or possible medical waste that can contaminate drink, surface water and groundwater. if the building is not properly cleaned and disinfected.
Huang says there have been no reports of medical waste leaks or health risks as the SARS hospital was abandoned. “To my knowledge, they also sterilized [Huoshenshan and Leishenshan] to make sure that there is no [medical waste] leak, so I guess I have to trust their ability not to make this another health hazard, ”he said.
From an urban planning perspective as well, Pan says hospitals occupy strategic locations within Wuhan, so if hospitals are abandoned, it will be a missed opportunity to do something valuable with the sites. If the buildings are not demolished, he would like to see them converted to other uses – perhaps a rehabilitation center or even a museum. “But the hurdle is, how well has it been designed to be able to withstand long-term use and conversion? Pan said.
Many have also questioned whether the “instant hospital” model could be adopted by other countries to fight the pandemic. Although prefabricated hospitals are growing in popularity, Pan says no one outside of China has the resources or the profitable workforce to follow suit. It would be “prohibitively expensive” for any other country, he said.
Instead, makeshift hospitals that have been converted from existing large buildings have already been adopted by others. August 1st Hong Kong opened its first makeshift hospital in a convention center. During this time, the United States installed many “pop-up” medical facilities in convention centers, car parks, stadiums, among others.
“Those [makeshift hospitals] were very effective in treating patients [in China], especially mild cases, ”says Huang. “They prevented infections that would have occurred if these patients had been sent home to overcrowded living spaces. “
Joanne Lu is a freelance journalist who covers poverty and inequality around the world. His work appeared in Humanosphere, The Guardian, Washington World and War is boring. Follow her on Twitter: @joannelu