Overwhelmed emergency wards. Queues outside crematoriums. Terrified people refusing to leave home. It’s the pandemic nightmare everybody feared. It’s happening now.
China is experiencing a Covid-19 surge unlike any other.
Just weeks after the abrupt abandonment of the Chinese Communist Party’s ruthless Zero-Covid lockdown policy, the virus is running rampant among a largely unprepared public. Officially, only seven people have died since Chairman Xi Jinping declared victory in his war against the virus on December 7.
But eyeballs can’t be censored.
Queues of hearses can be seen stretching through civic centres. Yellow and red body bags are clearly stacked in the halls and outside the entrances of funeral homes. Hospitals are scenes of unprecedented chaos.
“The most terrifying thing is how many dead bodies are being left in their homes for a day, two days, three days, even six or seven days,” a Shanghai business owner named Fang told Radio Free Asia.
“You have to line up at the crematoriums to get your number, and there are a lot of people in queues there at 4.30am,” Fang said. “I called the crematorium the next day, and they said I wouldn’t even be able to get a number for two days; that it had been suspended.”
Beijing has had three years to prepare for this disaster.
Lockdowns, border controls, and compulsory regular testing bought the nation of 1.4 billion people time to strengthen its health system, prepare oxygen supplies and build ventilators. Vaccine campaigns could have targeted the most vulnerable — such as the elderly. Stockpiles of simple fever medications could have been built up.
None of this appears to have happened.
“China’s current Covid crisis is entirely man-made. Chinese officials clearly erred in investing in relentless tracing, testing, and lockdowns at the expense of advanced therapeutics,” says Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) analyst Craig Singleton.
Now epidemiologists fear a worst-case scenario may now be unfolding. And that means an unrestrained first wave leading to five million people hospitalised — and up to 700,000 dead.
A leaked CCP document dated December 20 informed Beijing officials that as many as 250 million people might have already been infected. A week later, that number is likely to be significantly higher.
Beijing last week suddenly ceased reporting the number of national Covid cases.
It also restricted the official definition of “death by Covid” to respiratory failure only. That’s despite one of the virus’ most deadly attributes being the way it attacks many areas of the body, including the brain, kidneys and heart.
That’s why Chinese officials insist the lifting of Zero-Covid has so far resulted in just seven deaths, bringing the national total to 5241 since the outbreak began in 2019.
But some Communist Party officials in China’s provinces still provide caseload updates — despite testing no longer being compulsory. These confirm Covid-19 is running rampant, with some cities recording hundreds of thousands of new cases daily.
Unofficial estimates put the fatality rate at about 5000 daily.
It’s certainly higher than seven.
One widely circulated video shows an enormous, angry crowd at the Jinan city funeral parlour (in the capital of Shandong province). Similar footage is spilling through the cracks of China’s great internet firewall from across the country.
Beijing’s Covid messaging is once again falling foul of celebrities.
This time, it can’t have them arrested.
Several high-profile figures have died. One was a 27-year-old actor named Wang Yibo. State-controlled media says the cause of death was “encephalitis”.
But famous, older actors are also suddenly dying more than usual. And reporting on their deaths is being limited.
And then there are people’s own families.
“Nearly all the expected deaths stemming from China’s current Covid surge will impact the country’s vulnerable retirement-age population,” says Mr Singleton. “Owing to China’s one-child policy, many middle-aged Chinese citizens could lose one or potentially both of their ageing parents. Thousands of Chinese nuclear families risk losing a family member, if not downright disappearing.”
Careful what you wish for
One Hebei provincial disease control and prevention agency department official confirmed the pandemic was “downgraded” to boost China’s economic activity. “If the policy continued, the cost would be very high and it would drag down the entire national economy,” the official told RFA.
“So we have to downgrade Covid-19, then we can change the policy to resume economic activity.”
But, since the lifting of constraints, businesses have continued to struggle.
“Suggestions from certain Chinese officials that China will fully recover from its current Covid surge by the spring are optimistic at best and misguided at worst,” says Mr Singleton. “Many US officials and economists made similar predictions at the start of the pandemic, only to be forced to revise their rosy outlook. China will likely be no different.”
One area, however, is booming.
Shares in crematoriums and funeral homes are soaring. And funeral industry adverts are flooding jobseeking sites to meet demand.
One advert from the Binhai Ancient Garden cemetery in Shanghai’s Fengxian suburb wants men with driver’s licences to drive to people’s homes to pick up bodies.
It’s a similar story in Beijing. Residents are reportedly no longer allowed to take their dead relatives to funeral homes. Instead, they must schedule appointments to have them transported.
Meanwhile, Chairman Xi Jinping remains silent.
“I myself give the orders. I myself make the plans,” he declared as the Covid-19 epidemic erupted out of Wuhan in January 2020.
He doesn’t want anything to do with what’s happening since declaring victory on December 7.
But state-controlled media is singing his praises.
China’s pandemic strategy will “stand the test of history,” one report declares. And the People’s Daily newspaper put on its front page that China’s Covid policies “demonstrated the superiority of the country’s socialist system to the greatest extent” and that the public must place “unswerving” trust in the Party.
That didn’t happen for Chairman Xi’s Zero-Covid clampdowns. And his authority may once again come under threat if bodybags continue to build up in apartment block hallways.
“Xi staked his legacy on China’s draconian zero-Covid policy, which is why China’s pandemic U-turn has left him seriously exposed,” says Mr Singleton. “That explains Xi’s disappearing act from the headlines as he seeks to distance himself from the Chinese Communist Party’s now-haphazard response.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel