Funeral homes in Beijing, a city of 22 million people hit by COVID, were struggling on Saturday to respond to requests for funeral and cremation services as workers and drivers who had tested positive for the coronavirus were asking for sick leave.
After declaring that the omicron strain has weakened, and after unprecedented public protests against the zero COVID policy advocated by President Xi Jinping, China abruptly changed its COVID management protocols more than a week ago.
Abandoning endless testing, lockdowns and heavy travel restrictions, China is following the rest of the world, which is trying to coexist with the virus.
China has asked its 1.4 billion people to treat mild symptoms at home unless they worsen, as cities across the country prepare for the first waves of infections.
In Beijing, which has yet to report any COVID deaths since policies changed Dec. 7, sick workers have hit service staff, from restaurants and courier companies, and a dozen funeral homes.
“Now we have fewer floats and workers,” an employee of Miyun Funeral Home told Reuters, adding that demand for cremation services was growing. “We have a lot of workers who have tested positive.”
It was not immediately clear whether the struggle to meet the growing demand for incinerations was due to a rise in COVID-related deaths.
At Huairou Funeral Home, a body had to wait three days before being cremated, an employee said.
“You can transport the body yourself, lately there is a lot of work,” he added.
The Chinese health authority last reported COVID deaths on Dec. 3, and the capital on Nov. 23.
However, respected Chinese media outlet Caixin reported on Friday that two veteran journalists from state media had died after contracting COVID-19 in Beijing, the first known deaths since China dismantled most of its zero-COVID policies.
Caixin further reported Saturday that a 23-year-old medical student from Sichuan had died of COVID on Dec. 14.
However, the National Health Commission on Saturday reported no change to its official figure of 5,235 COVID deaths.
According to the US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), China’s abrupt lifting of its ultra-restrictive policies could cause more than one million deaths by 2023.
If those policies had been lifted earlier, for example on January 3 this year, 250,000 people would have died in China, leading Chinese epidemiologist Wu Zunyou said on Saturday.
As of Dec. 5, the proportion of severe or critically ill COVID patients had dropped to 0.18% of reported cases, according to Wu, up from 3.32% last year and 16.47% in 2020.
This shows that the death rate in China is gradually declining, he said, without elaborating.
It was unclear whether the proportion of seriously ill people had changed since Dec. 5. Regular PCR testing and mandatory case reporting were abolished on 7 December.
“There are long lines of hearses and it’s hard to say when space will be available,” said an employee of Dongjiao Funeral Home.
“Normal deaths,” the employee replied when asked if the deaths were COVID-related.
The lack of reporting of COVID deaths over the past 10 days has sparked a debate on social media about data disclosure, fuelled also by the paucity of statistics on hospitalizations and the number of seriously ill.
“Why aren’t these statistics found? What’s going on? Haven’t they counted them or just don’t announce them?” asked one netizen on Chinese social media.
China stopped publishing asymptomatic cases as of Wednesday, claiming that the lack of PCR tests among asymptomatic people made it difficult to count totally.
Official figures have become an unreliable guide, as fewer tests are being conducted across the country following the easing of zero-COVID policies.
In Shanghai, more than 1,000 kilometers south of Beijing, local education authorities on Saturday ordered most schools to hold classes online starting Monday, to deal with worsening COVID infections across China.
In a sign of looming staffing shortages, Shanghai Disney (NYSE:DISResort said Saturday that the entertainment offer could be reduced to fewer workers, although the theme park remained operating normally.