Funeral homes in central China are working round the clock to cremate bodies during the coronavirus epidemic, while advertising to recruit manual workers to collect dead bodies from people's homes by night, RFA has learned.
The Wuchang Funeral Home in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, recently advertised for 20 new members of staff to man a four-hour night shift collecting bodies from their homes.
An advertisement seen by RFA offered 4,000 yuan (U.S.$572) for four hours' work. The average monthly salary for city-dwellers in China is around 8,452 yuan (U.S.$1,228.38).
The ad calls for applicants aged 16-50 years old, regardless of gender, with "bold and strong" personalities who have no fear of ghosts.
Shifts will run from 4.00 p.m. to 4.00 a.m. daily, with the option of earning up to 8,000 yuan a night.
The advertisement emerged as the number of deaths of patients confirmed to have the COVID-19 coronavirus rose to 1,318 in Hubei, out of a total of 1,384 worldwide.
More than 1,700 Chinese medical workers have now been infected by COVID-19, and six of them have died, Zeng Yixin, vice director of the National Health Commission, told a news conference on Friday.
Higher numbers suspected
But there are indications that the true number of deaths in a city under quarantine may be far higher than the reported numbers indicate.
Social media users said there are 84 incinerators located at seven funeral homes across Wuhan, with a capacity to perform 2,016 cremations in any 24-hour period.
All of those funeral homes have been working around the clock in recent weeks, with dead bodies lying in rows waiting for cremation, social media reports said.
Wuhan voluntary worker Zhong Qiang, who recently carried out an unofficial survey of funeral homes and crematoria in Wuhan, said what he saw backed up the claims of 24-7 cremation in the city.
"There is a fairly small funeral home in Wuhan that is able to cremate more than 100 dead bodies a day," Zhong said. "They have been doing so since mid-January, and it's been going on for more than 20 days."
"That's several thousand bodies per funeral home, right?" he asked.
He said the funeral facilities in the city are struggling to cope with the sheer volume of cremations needed.
"There are seven or eight funeral homes, and even they aren't enough to keep up with demand," Zhong said. "Some are using volunteer workers from other provinces to keep working around the clock."
He said a small crematorium typically has around 11 furnaces that can cremate 120 bodies a day, while the larger facilities have double that number."
"You do the math," Zhong said, adding that his visits to these facilities had led him to doubt that the official figures were even close to giving a true picture of the impact of COVID-19.
"I'm convinced that there are more than 500,000 infections [in Wuhan alone]," Zhong said.
Authorities slow to act
Hubei environmental activist Huang Yi said local government officials had been too slow to act at the start of the epidemic.
"They were too late to the game, because they were trying to protect their careers and pass the buck," Huang said. "
"In the case of the Baibuting Park [Lunar New Year] 10,000 Families Feast, the lower-ranking officials were saying it would be best to call it off, but the higher-ranking ones thought that only a few hundred people would be saved from infection."
"Quite a few of those people are no longer with us: even the two photographers died," he said. "That's why bureaucracy and the [current] climate of political correctness [under President Xi Jinping] is harming people."
Reported by Qiao Long and Li Zhizhi for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.