by Ryan Woo and Winnie Zhou
BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Funeral homes in China’s Covid-hit capital Beijing, a city of 22 million, crowded on Saturday to call for funeral and cremation services, as workers and drivers Corona virus was confirmed.
After announcing that the Omicron strain had weakened, and unprecedented public protests against a zero-Covid policy endorsed by President Xi Jinping, China suddenly shifted its Covid management protocols more than a week ago.
Moving away from endless testing, lockdowns and heavy travel restrictions, China is adjusting to a world that has largely reopened to live with COVID.
China has told its population of 1.4 billion to take care of their mild symptoms at home unless they become severe, as China’s cities prepare for their first wave of infections.
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In Beijing, where no COVID deaths have yet been reported since the policy change on December 7, sick workers have affected staff at services ranging from restaurants and courier firms to about a dozen funeral parlours .
“We have fewer cars and staff now,” an employee at Miyun Funeral Home told Reuters.
“We have several workers who have tested positive.”
It was not immediately clear whether the struggle to meet rising demand for cremations was due to the increase in COVID-related deaths.
An employee said that at the Huirou funeral home, a body had to wait for three days before being cremated.
The employee said, “You can take the body here yourself, it’s been busy lately.”
China’s health authority last reported COVID deaths on December 3. The Chinese capital last reported a death on 23 November.
Yet respected Chinese news outlet Caixin reported on Friday that two veteran state media journalists had died after contracting COVID-19 in Beijing, in the first known deaths since China ended most of its zero-Covid policies. since a. 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 on Saturday reported no change in its official COVID death toll of 5,235.
According to the US-based Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), a sudden lifting of its ultra-strict policies by China could result in more than one million deaths by 2023.
Leading Chinese epidemiologist Wu Junyu said on Saturday that if those policies had been lifted earlier, as of January 3 this year, 250,000 people would have died in China.
As of December 5, the proportion of severe 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.
He said that this shows that China’s death rate is gradually falling.
It was not clear whether the proportion of seriously ill people had changed since December 5. Routine PCR testing and mandatory reporting of cases were scrapped on 7 December.
“There are long queues for bodies and it is difficult to say when slots will become available,” said an employee at the Dongjiao Funeral Home.
“Normal deaths,” said the employee, when asked if the deaths were related to COVID.
The lack of reported COVID deaths for the past 10 days has sparked a debate on social media over data disclosure, also from the lack of data on hospitalizations and the number of people who are seriously ill.
“Why can’t these statistics be found? What is happening? Did they not tally them or are they just not announcing them?” a netizen asked on Chinese social media.
China stopped publishing asymptomatic cases from Wednesday, citing a lack of PCR testing among people without symptoms, making it difficult to accurately tally the total count.
Official figures have become an unreliable guide as fewer tests are being conducted across the country after zero-Covid policies were eased.
In Shanghai, more than 1,000 km (620 miles) south of Beijing, local education officials on Saturday told most schools to start online classes from Monday to deal with worsening COVID infections across China.
In a sign of impending staff shortages, Shanghai Disney Resort said on Saturday the entertainment offering could reduce to a smaller workforce, although the theme park was still operating as normal.
(Reporting by Ryan Wu in Beijing and Winnie Zhou in Shanghai, with additional reporting by Jindong Zhang; Editing by Tom Hogg)
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