In Beijing, funeral homes and crematoria are busy as COVID spreads

BEIJING/SHANGHAI, Dec 17 (Reuters) – Hearses carrying the dead lined the entrance to a designated COVID-19 crematorium in the Chinese capital on Saturday, while workers at the city’s dozens of funeral homes were busier than normal, days after China had lifted the strict pandemic restrictions.

In recent days, the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant in Beijing has hit services ranging from catering to parcel delivery. Funeral homes and crematoria in the city of 22 million are also struggling to keep up with demand as more workers and drivers who have tested positive for coronavirus call in sick.

China has yet to officially report any COVID-related deaths since December 7, when the country abruptly ended many key tenets of its zero-COVID policy championed by President Xi Jinping following unprecedented public protests against the protocol.

A US-based research institute said this week the country could see an explosion of cases and over a million people in China could die from COVID in 2023. A sharp spike in deaths would test authorities’ efforts to dissuade China from endless testing. Lockdowns and severe travel restrictions and a rebalancing to a world that has largely reopened to living with the disease.

On Saturday afternoon, a Reuters journalist saw about 30 stationary hearses pulled up in the driveway at Dongjiao Funeral Home, a COVID-designated crematorium in Beijing.

Parked between them was an ambulance and a car with a sheet-wrapped body in the open trunk, which was later picked up by workers in hazmat suits and taken to a prep room to await cremation. Three of the numerous chimneys smoked continuously.

A few meters from the crematorium, in a funeral home, the Reuters journalist saw about 20 yellow body bags with corpses lying on the ground. Reuters couldn’t immediately determine whether the deaths were due to COVID.

The park ranger and the owner of an urn shop in the funeral home’s building told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the number of deaths during the period was above average and higher compared to before most pandemic restrictions were lifted Dec. 7.

Sick workers have also affected staffing at about a dozen funeral homes in Beijing.

“We have fewer cars and workers now,” an employee at Miyun funeral home told Reuters by phone, also on condition of anonymity, 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 also due to a spike in COVID-related deaths.

At the Huairou funeral home, a body was kept for 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 .

On Saturday, Caixin reported that a 23-year-old medical student in Sichuan died from COVID on Dec. 14.

Still, the National Health Commission on Saturday reported no change in its official COVID death toll of 5,235 since the pandemic broke out in Wuhan province in late 2019.

Since restrictions were lifted earlier this month, China has urged its 1.4 billion people to stay home if they have mild symptoms as cities across China prepare for their first waves of infection.

Had the strict containment guidelines been lifted earlier, say on Jan. 3 this year, 250,000 people would have died in China, prominent Chinese epidemiologist Wu Zunyou said on 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 from the disease is gradually falling, he said, without elaborating.

Official numbers on cases have become an unreliable guide as fewer tests are conducted across the country following the relaxation of zero-COVID guidelines.

China stopped releasing the number of asymptomatic cases as of Wednesday, citing a shortage of PCR testing for people without symptoms.

The lack of officially reported COVID deaths over the past 10 days has sparked a data disclosure debate on social media, also 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 one person on Chinese social media.

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 impending staff shortages, Shanghai Disney Resort said on Saturday that entertainment offerings could fall due to a reduced workforce, although the theme park was still operating normally.

One of the Christmas markets in downtown Shanghai saw few visitors on Saturday.

“Everyone is too scared,” said an employee at the ticket counter.

Reporting by Ryan Woo and Alessandro Diviggiano in Beijing and Winni Zhou in Shanghai Additional reporting by Jindong Zhang, Brenda Goh and Eduardo Baptista Writing by Sumeet Chatterjee Editing by Tom Hogue and Frances Kerry

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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