BEIJING/SHANGHAI, Dec 17 – Funeral homes across China’s COVID-hit capital Beijing, a city of 22 million people, struggled on Saturday to keep up with calls for funeral and cremation services as workers and drivers tested positive for the so-called new coronavirus in the sick.
After declaring that the Omicron strain had weakened and unprecedented public outcry against the zero-covid policy promoted by President Xi Jinping, China abruptly changed its protocols for managing COVID more than a week ago.
Moving away from endless testing, lockdowns and heavy travel restrictions, China is adapting to a world that has largely reopened to live with COVID.
China has told its population of 1.4 billion to treat mild symptoms at home unless symptoms become severe, as cities across China prepare for the first waves of infections.
In Beijing, which has so far reported no deaths from COVID since the policy changed on Dec. 7, sick workers have hit staffing levels at services ranging from restaurants and courier companies to about a dozen funeral homes.
“We now have fewer cars and fewer workers,” an employee at Miyun Funeral Home told Reuters, adding that demand for cremation services is growing.
“We have many workers who have tested positive.”
It was not immediately clear whether the struggle to meet the increased demand for cremation was due to the increase in COVID-related deaths.
At the Huairou funeral home, the body had to wait three days before it could be cremated, an employee said.
“You can bring the body here yourself, it’s been busy here recently,” said the employee.
The Chinese Health Authority last reported a death from COVID on December 3. The Chinese capital last reported a death on November 23.
Still, respected Chinese news channel Caixin reported on Friday that two veteran state media journalists had died after contracting COVID-19 in Beijing, among the first known deaths since China scrapped most of its zero-Covid policies. And on Saturday, Caixin reported that a 23-year-old medical student in Sichuan died of COVID on December 14.
Still, the National Health Commission reported no change in its official COVID death toll of 5,235 on Saturday.
A sudden reversal of its ultra-strict policies could cause more than a million deaths by 2023, according to the US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
If the policy were lifted earlier, say on January 3 this year, 250,000 people would have died in China, Wu Zunyou, a prominent Chinese epidemiologist, said on Saturday.
As of Dec. 5, the proportion of seriously or critically ill COVID patients had dropped to 0.18% of reported cases, Wu said, from 3.32% last year and 16.47% in 2020.
This shows that China’s death rate is gradually falling, he said, without elaborating.
It was not clear whether the proportion of seriously ill patients had changed since December 5. As of December 7, regular PCR testing and mandatory case reporting were cancelled.