- Hearses queue in front of the Beijing crematorium
- China reports no new deaths; some criticize the accounting
- Beijing faces surge in severe COVID in next two weeks – expert
BEIJING, Dec 21 (Reuters) – Dozens of hearses queued outside a Beijing crematorium on Wednesday, even as China reported no new COVID-19 deaths in its growing outbreak, sparking criticism of its virus, which is considered the capital for a spate of cases applies.
After widespread protests, the country of 1.4 billion people this month began dismantling its unpopular “zero-COVID” regime of lockdowns and testing that had kept the virus largely under control for three years, albeit at high economic and psychological costs.
The abrupt change in policy has caught a fragile healthcare system off guard, with hospitals fighting for beds and blood, pharmacies for medicines and government agencies racing to build dedicated clinics. Experts predict China could face more than 1 million COVID deaths next year.
At a crematorium in Beijing’s Tongzhou district, a Reuters witness saw a line of about 40 hearses waiting to be admitted while the parking lot was full.
Inside, family and friends, many wearing traditional white clothing and mourning headbands, gathered around about 20 coffins awaiting cremation. Personnel wore hazmat suits and smoke rose from five of the 15 ovens.
There was a strong police presence in front of the crematorium.
Reuters could not verify whether the deaths were caused by COVID.
Some Beijing residents have to wait for days to cremate relatives or pay high fees for faster service, funeral directors said.
An employee at a Beijing funeral home posted on social media an offer for “quick hearse arrangement, no cremation queue” for a fee of 26,000 yuan (US$3,730).
Reuters could not verify the offer.
China uses a narrow definition of COVID deaths and reported no new deaths for Tuesday, even dropping one from its total since the pandemic began, now at 5,241 – a fraction of the toll of many much less populous countries.
The National Health Commission said Tuesday only deaths from pneumonia and respiratory failure in patients who had the virus are classified as COVID-related deaths.
Benjamin Mazer, an assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University, said the classification would miss “many cases,” especially since people who are vaccinated, even with Chinese vaccines, are less likely to die from pneumonia.
Blood clots, heart problems and sepsis — an extreme body response to infection — have caused countless deaths in COVID patients around the world.
“There’s no point in adopting that kind of March 2020 mindset when it’s just COVID pneumonia that can kill you,” Mazer said.
“There are all sorts of medical complications.”
The death toll could rise sharply in the near future as state-run newspaper Global Times quotes a Chinese respiratory expert as predicting a spike in severe cases in Beijing in the coming weeks.
“We must act quickly and prepare fever clinics and emergency and serious treatment resources,” Wang Guangfa, a respiratory specialist at Peking University First Hospital, told the newspaper.
Wang expected the COVID wave to peak in late January, and life is expected to return to normal in late February or early March.
The NHC also downplayed international concerns about the possibility of virus mutations, saying the likelihood of new strains that were more pathogenic was low.
Paul Tambyah, President of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, supported this view.
“I don’t think that poses a threat to the world,” he said. “Chances are that the virus will behave like any other human virus and adapt to the environment in which it circulates by becoming more transmissible and less virulent.”
Several prominent scientists and advisers to the World Health Organization told Reuters a potentially devastating surge in China means it may be too early to declare the end of the global pandemic emergency.
Some US and European officials have offered to help mitigate a crisis they fear will hurt the global economy and disrupt supply chains.
From the epicenter in northern China, infections are spreading to manufacturing belts including the Yangtze River Delta near Shanghai, disrupting workforces.
Retail and financial services firms have been hit hard by staff shortages, and factories weren’t far behind, industry groups say.
Communist Party employees and those at government institutions or companies in the southwestern city of Chongqing who have mild COVID symptoms can go to work if they wear a mask, the state-run China Daily reported.
Other media reported similar decisions in other cities.
China is still largely closed to the outside world due to COVID restrictions on international travel, but there are signs these rules are also being relaxed.
Chelsea Xiang, 35, said she only needs two days of quarantine in the southwestern city of Chengdu after returning from Hong Kong on Sunday, rather than the minimum five officially required.
“I feel like I have my human rights back,” Xiang said.
Reporting by Thomas Peter, Alessandro Diviggiano, Albee Zhang, Bernard Orr, Martin Pollard, Eduardo Baptista, Joe Cash and Ryan Woo in Beijing, Casey Hall in Shanghai, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Chen Lin in Singapore; Letter from Marius Zaharia; Lincoln Feast Editor, Robert Birsel
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