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2020-04-02 08:56:14

Following a city government’s reversal of a decision on the nature of a doctor’s death, Procuratorate Daily, the official newspaper of China’s judiciary, published a commentary Wednesday saying extraordinary considerations for ensuring that the families of deceased frontline medical workers are taken care of have sent “positive signals.”

On Feb. 13, Liu Wenxiong, a doctor at a small hospital in Xiantao — a city in the central Hubei province where a total of 575 COVID-19 patients have been diagnosed — died of a heart attack at home. In the month before Liu’s death, he reportedly received over 3,500 patients, and on the evening he died he had been taking phone calls from hospitalized patients.

However, a week later, the local human resources bureau denied Liu’s hospital’s request that the doctor’s death be recognized as work-related. The bureau argued that because Liu suffered the heart attack at home, his death did not meet the criteria for a work-related incident.

China’s Regulation on Work-Related Injury Insurance stipulates that such incidents, including sudden death, must have occurred during working hours and at the workplace.

After Liu’s family appealed the human resources bureau’s decision, the Xiantao city government intervened, saying that in light of this being a “special period” of fighting against the outbreak, relevant departments should not mechanically restrict the definition of work-related injuries to those occurring in the workplace or during working hours. Two days later, Liu’s death was officially recognized as a work-related injury. Along with the new decision, his family received 800,000 yuan ($113,000) in compensation, according to The Beijing News.

Procuratorate Daily said that the flexible policy interpretations applied during the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak should serve to improve the current laws and regulations, especially given a recent uptick in deaths from overwork.

Li Lijuan, a Beijing-based lawyer who specializes in medical disputes, told Sixth Tone it would have been almost impossible for Liu’s family to successfully appeal the bureau’s decision had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic. “As long as the definition of a work-related injury remains the same, it’s hard to apply such flexible practices to similar cases in the future, because in China, legal precedents cannot serve as references for future trials,” she said. “But it will be very significant if this inspiring case leads to revisions of existing legal definitions.”

Li represented the family of an anesthetist in Fuyang, in eastern China’s Anhui province, who died suddenly at home in early 2014 after returning from a night shift. “Our appeal failed because the 32-year-old didn’t die at the hospital or during working hours,” she said. “And the hospital, worried about its reputation, was reluctant to file the application to recognize the doctor’s sudden death as a work-related injury.”

Eventually, the hospital offered the late doctor’s family 23,000 yuan in “humanitarian aid” — a relatively small sum, given the circumstances. “If we had managed to convince the authorities to define the young doctor’s death as a work-related injury, based on the compensation standards back then in Fuyang, the family would have received 460,000 yuan,” Li said.

“Medical workers are a special group of people who are constantly overworked and under pressure,” the lawyer said. She added that anesthetists are especially vulnerable because they’re needed for surgeries across different departments, and may attend to over a dozen a day.

On March 21, a 29-year-old anesthetist on the front lines of the outbreak in Yichang, Hubei province, died of a stroke. In November, another young anesthetist died from a heart attack in Shanghai after an overnight shift.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: A medical worker in full protective gear looks out the window of a hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province, March 19, 2020. Xinhua)