BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Funeral homes in China’s COVID-hit capital Beijing, a city of 22 million, on Saturday struggled to keep up with calls for funeral and cremation services, as workers and drivers responded positively tested for the novel coronavirus called sick.
China abruptly changed its COVID management protocols more than a week ago, following a declaration that the Omicron strain has been weakened and unprecedented public protests against a zero-COVID policy championed by President Xi Jinping.
Moving away from endless testing, lockdowns and heavy travel restrictions, China is realigning itself to a world that has largely reopened to living with COVID.
China has urged its 1.4 billion residents to care for their mild symptoms at home unless symptoms become severe, as cities across China brace for their first waves of infection.
In Beijing, which has yet to report any COVID-related deaths since guidelines were changed on Dec. 7, sick workers have hit staff from restaurants and courier companies to their dozen or so funeral homes.
“We have fewer cars and workers now,” an employee at the Miyun Funeral Home told Reuters, adding that there was a growing backlog of demand for cremation services.
“We have many workers who have tested positive.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if the struggle to handle the increased demand for cremation was due to a spike in COVID-related deaths.
At the Huairou funeral home, a body had to wait three days before it could be cremated, an employee said.
“You can transport the body here yourself, it’s been busy lately,” the employee said.
China’s health authority last reported COVID-related deaths on December 3. The Chinese capital last reported a death on November 23.
However, the respected Chinese news agency Caixin reported on Friday that two veteran state media journalists had died after contracting COVID-19 in Beijing, one of the first known deaths since China phased out most of its zero-COVID policies . And on Saturday, Caixin reported that a 23-year-old medical student in Sichuan died from COVID on Dec. 14.
Still, the National Health Commission reported no change in its official COVID death count of 5,235 on Saturday.
China’s abrupt lifting of its ultra-tight policies could cause over a million deaths by 2023, according to the US-based Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
Had those guidelines been lifted earlier, say on Jan. 3 this year, 250,000 people would have died in China, prominent Chinese epidemiologist Wu Zunyou said Saturday.
By Dec. 5, the proportion of severely or critically ill COVID patients had dropped to 0.18% of reported cases from 3.32% last year and 16.47% in 2020, Wu said.
This shows that China’s death rate is gradually falling, he said, without elaborating.
It was unclear whether the proportion of seriously ill people had changed since December 5. Regular PCR testing and mandatory case reporting were abolished on December 7.
“There are long lines of hearses here and it is difficult to say when there will be vacancies,” said a Dongjiao Funeral Home official.
“Ordinary deaths,” the staffer said when asked if the deaths were related to COVID.
The lack of reported COVID deaths over the past 10 days has sparked a data disclosure debate on social media, which has also been fueled by a lack of statistics on hospitalizations and the number of seriously ill.
“Why can’t you find these statistics? What’s happening? Didn’t they count them or they just don’t announce them?” asked a netizen on Chinese social media.
China stopped releasing asymptomatic cases as of Wednesday, citing a lack of PCR testing for those without symptoms, which made it difficult to accurately determine the total number.
Official figures have become an unreliable guide as fewer tests are conducted across the country following the relaxation of zero-COVID guidelines.
In Shanghai, more than 1,000 km (620 miles) south of Beijing, local education authorities on Saturday urged most schools to move classes online from Monday to cope with worsening COVID infections across China.
In a sign of future staffing shortages, Shanghai Disney Resort said on Saturday that entertainment offerings could be scaled back to a smaller workforce, though the theme park was still operating normally.
Reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing and Winni Zhou in Shanghai, with additional reporting by Jindong Zhang; Editing by Tom Hogue
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