Coronavirus: Chinese cities ban sale of fever, cough medicines to turn out infected patients

People buying medical supplies at a pharmacy in Hangzhou, in China's eastern Zhejiang province, on Jan 23, 2020.
People buying medical supplies at a pharmacy in Hangzhou, in China's eastern Zhejiang province, on Jan 23, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

At least three cities in China have resorted to banning the sale of fever and cough medicines to force people who are unwell to seek treatment at hospitals, where they could be tested for the coronavirus that has killed more than a thousand people in the country.

Hangzhou announced on Feb 7 that all retail pharmacies in the eastern Chinese city would not be allowed to sell 106 types of medicines that treat fever and cough with effect from the following day.

The list includes both Western and traditional Chinese medicines, especially those that contain codeine, ibuprofen and aspirin.

Local health official Shi Changyou told reporters that the emergency measure was put in place to control the virus outbreak in Hangzhou, home to 10 million people, the Voice Of West Lake radio news reported. The ban also extends to online platforms, such as AliHealth Pharmacy, a unit of China's biggest e-commerce company Alibaba Group Holding.

Residents with fever and cough, two major symptoms of the coronavirus, are advised to approach the nearest hospital for help, Mr Shi added.

Other symptoms of the coronavirus include breathing difficulties and pneumonia.

Since January, several provinces have begun requiring pharmacies to record the identities, contact details and body temperatures of customers who purchase fever or cough medicines.

Besides Hangzhou, Ningbo city - also in the coastal Zhejiang province - and balmy Sanya in southern China's Hainan Island, as well as cities such as Jinhua in Zhejiang and Haikou in Hainan, have also announced similar bans on fever and cough medicines, China's Time Finance news site reported.

As of Monday, there were 1,117 confirmed cases of infection in Zhejiang - including 157 in Hangzhou, 151 in Ningbo and four in Jinhua - while Hainan province identified 142 infected patients and had three deaths as at 12 noon on Tuesday (Feb 11).

Some netizens have turned to social media to criticise the move for putting people who do not have the virus at risk of catching it.

"Isn't this a little rigid? If it was just an ordinary case of cough, should we still go to the hospital and risk an infection?" said Reese_3 in Weibo.


To prevent more clusters from forming, some local authorities, including in Hangzhou, have gone to the extreme of using metal chains to lock people who returned from virus-stricken areas such as Wuhan in their flats, Quartz Daily reported.

Twitter user Viola Zhou on Feb 5 posted a photo that showed a peek out of a house through a partially opened door with a metal chain that appeared to prevent the door from opening further.

"Community workers in Hangzhou have locked my friend in his apartment with a metal chain because his family travelled to Wenzhou (with nearly 400 coronavirus cases) recently," Ms Zhou wrote in the accompanying text.

"What if there's a fire at our home at midnight, and we can't get anyone to unlock it?" she added, apparently quoting the words of her friend.

China on Dec 31 first announced a small outbreak of the coronavirus, which has no official name yet, in the central city of Wuhan involving 27 cases. Since then, the virus has spread to all provinces in China, with the death toll on the mainland standing at 1,016 as at Monday.

More than 400 infections, including one death each in Hong Kong and the Philippines, have been reported so far in other parts of the world.