China could see 36,000 COVID deaths a day during Lunar New Year holiday

Bereaved relatives say funeral homes are still running two-week waitlists despite operating round the clock.
By Gao Feng and Jing Wei for RFA Mandarin
2023.01.19
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China could see 36,000 COVID deaths a day during Lunar New Year holiday Relatives and neighbors attend the funeral of a woman in a village in Tonglu county, Zhejiang province, China, Jan. 9, 2023.
Reuters

China could see as many as 36,000 deaths a day over the Lunar New Year holiday period as millions of people travel to their ancestral homes to spend time with loved ones, a U.K.-based research firm said in a computer-modeled prediction of the impact of the current COVID-19 wave sweeping the country.

"In our updated model, cases could peak at 4.8 million a day with 62 million infections predicted across a fortnight between Jan. 13-27 before beginning to fall," Airfinity said in an updated report on its website.

"Deaths are forecast to peak at 36,000 a day on the 26th of January during the Lunar New Year Festival. This is up from our previous estimate of deaths peaking at 25,000 a day," it said.

It said the higher prediction was due to "increased pressure on hospitals and crematoriums."

Crematoriums continue to burn around the clock across China as COVID-19 rips through a population that has been vaccinated with less effective homegrown vaccines.

A resident of the eastern city of Hangzhou who gave only the surname Zhao for fear of reprisals said his grandfather had recently died of COVID-19, but that the family is having trouble getting a cremation booking.

"There are about eight or nine funeral homes in Hangzhou, all of which are full, and the waiting list is at least two weeks long," Zhao said. "It's not just Hangzhou either. My friend in Shanghai said the relatives of someone who died of COVID-19 recently were having to pay out for cold storage every day that they were in the queue."

He said funeral home staff in Hangzhou had told him that their cold storage was completely full, and that there were no memorial services currently being held, so as to save time.

"The farewell ceremony for the dead person is held right there in the courtyard, and only lasts a few minutes," he said.

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A staff member walks next to bodies in body bags at a funeral home in Shanghai, China, Jan. 4, 2023. Credit: Reuters

Noticeable increase in activity

A series of satellite images taken by Maxar Technologies and analyzed by the Washington Post on Jan. 9 showed a noticeable increase in activity at funeral homes across six different cities, from Beijing in the north to Nanjing in the east, to Chengdu and Kunming in the southwest.

The photos showed vehicles transporting remains and family members lining up for cremation in larger numbers than the same time last year.

They appeared to confirm repeated anecdotal evidence from people on the ground who have struggled to organize cremations for deceased loved ones.

U.S.-based businessman Hu Liren said his father, who was in his nineties, died recently of COVID-19 in Shanghai.

"Cremations are now backed up until the 29th of this month in Jinqiao, Pudong [a district of Shanghai]," he said. 

Hu said that while funeral homes once worked an eight-hour day, they are currently operating round the clock in a bid to clear the backlog.

"A friend of mine said the staff of a funeral home told him that they're not just working overtime; they're also adding cremation furnaces and making renovations," Hu said.

"The Chinese government may have realized that future death rates may be much higher," he said.

Airfinity’s Analytics Director Matt Linley said the firm expects the current wave of infections to be more prolonged, and with a higher peak, than previously anticipated.

"Some provinces, such as Hubei and Henan, could see patient demand for intensive care beds being six times hospital capacity," Linley said in comments on the firm's website.

"It is likely that many treatable patients could die due to overcrowded hospitals and lack of care."

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A combination image of satellite photos shows Tangshan city funeral home in Tangshan, China, on Jan. 26, 2020 [top], and amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, on Jan. 4, 2023. Credit: Maxar Technologies/Handout via Reuters

‘The more disasters the better’

China has reported 60,000 Covid-related deaths in just over a month since the ruling Communist Party abandoned its stringent zero-COVID policy of rolling lockdowns, mass surveillance and compulsory testing.

Current affairs commentator Heng He said Airfinity's revised deaths predictions came as the Chinese government announced that Pfizer's antiviral Paxlovid, which is recommended as a front-line treatment for COVID-19, won't be on the list of approved drugs under China's national health insurance scheme.

"One thing the Chinese authorities aren't bothered about is people dying," Heng said. "From the Chinese Communist Party's point of view, the more disasters the better, because they can boost their own reputation with disaster relief efforts."

"Entering this drug [Paxlovid] doesn't really do much for its reputation, and it's not going to change its policy just because of a large number of deaths," he said. "China doesn't want a foreign medicine to impress on the Chinese people the idea that foreign is better."

"It prefers that people see the superiority of its [political] system. It doesn't care how many people die," Heng said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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People stand outside a funeral home in Shanghai, China, Jan. 5, 2023. Credit: Reuters
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