BEIJING/SHANGHAI, Dec 17 (Reuters) – Horses carrying the dead lined the route to a designated Covid-19 crematorium in the Chinese capital on Saturday as workers at dozens of funeral homes in the city were busier than normal, days after China eased its strict pandemic restrictions. .
The spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant in Beijing in recent days has affected services ranging from catering to parcel delivery. Funeral homes and crematoria across the city of 22 million people are struggling to keep up with demand as more workers and drivers test positive for the coronavirus.
China has not officially reported any COVID deaths since December 7, when the country abruptly ended several key tenets of its zero-covid policy championed by President Xi Jinping, following unprecedented popular protests against the protocol.
A US-based research firm said this week that the country could see an explosion of cases and that more than a million people in China could die of COVID by 2023. A sharp rise in deaths will test authorities’ efforts to move China away from endless testing. Lockdowns and strict travel restrictions and living with the disease are often readjusted with a reopened world.
On Saturday afternoon, a Reuters journalist saw about 30 static corpses parked in the driveway leading to Dongjiao Funeral Home, a Covid-designated crematorium in Beijing.
Parked among them was an ambulance and a wagon with a sheet-wrapped corpse in the open trunk, which was then picked up by workers in hazmat suits and moved to a preparation room awaiting cremation. Three of the many chimneys smoked continuously.
A few meters from the crematorium, at a funeral, a Reuters journalist found about 20 yellow body bags containing corpses on the ground. Reuters could not immediately establish whether the deaths were due to Covid.
A parking lot security operator and the owner of a casket shop in the funeral home, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the number of deaths during the period was higher than average and compared to the period before most pandemic restrictions were lifted. December 7.
Sick workers have also infected staff at about a dozen funeral parlors in Beijing.
“We now have fewer cars and workers,” an employee of Miyun Funeral Home told Reuters by phone, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that demand for cremation services is increasing. “We have several workers who have tested positive.”
It was not immediately clear whether the rise in Covid-related deaths was also due to the struggle to meet increased demand for cremations.
At Huairou Funeral Home, a body was kept for three days before being cremated, an employee said.
“You can take the body here yourself, it’s been busy lately,” the waiter said.
Monitoring of deaths and cases
China’s Health Commission last reported Covid deaths on December 3. The Chinese capital last recorded a death on November 23.
However, respected Chinese news agency Caixin reported on Friday that two senior state journalists had died of COVID-19 in Beijing, among the first known deaths since China scrapped its zero-covid policies.
On Saturday, Caixin reported that a 23-year-old medical student in Sichuan died of Covid on December 14.
However, the National Health Commission said on Saturday that there was no change in its official COVID death toll of 5,235 since the epidemic emerged in Wuhan province in late 2019.
Since easing restrictions earlier this month, cities across China have been told to stay home if they have mild symptoms, as cities across China brace for their first infections.
Wu Junyu, a prominent Chinese epidemiologist, said on Saturday that 250,000 people would have died in China by January 3 this year if strict containment policies had been lifted earlier.
As of Dec. 5, the proportion of seriously or critically ill Covid patients has 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 from the disease is gradually declining, he said without elaborating.
Official statistics on cases have become an unreliable guide as fewer tests are carried out across the country following the relaxation of zero-covid policies.
China has stopped publishing the number of asymptomatic cases since Wednesday, citing a lack of PCR testing among people without symptoms.
The lack of officially reported COVID deaths over the past 10 days has fueled debate on social media over data disclosure, fueled by a lack of statistics on hospitalizations and the number of seriously ill people.
“Why can’t these figures be found? What’s going on? They don’t calculate them or they don’t report them?” asked one on Chinese social media.
In the city of Shanghai, about 1,000 km (620 miles) south of Beijing, local education officials said on Saturday that most schools will hold classes online from Monday to deal with worsening Covid infections across China.
In a sign of impending staffing crunches, the Shanghai Disney Resort said Saturday that although the theme park is still operating normally, entertainment offerings may be reduced due to a smaller workforce.
One of Shanghai’s Christmas markets, in the city center, was sparsely attended on Saturday.
“Everyone is so scared,” said an employee at the ticket booth.
Reporting by Ryan Wu and Alessandro Divigiano in Beijing and Winnie Chow in Shanghai Additional reporting by Jindong Zhang, Brenda Ko and Eduardo Baptista Writing by Sumeet Chatterjee Editing by Tom Hoke and Frances Kerry
Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.