For much of the pandemic, images of overflowing hospitals and busy funeral homes from the United States have featured heavily on China’s state-controlled television, where the deaths of over a million Americans from Covid is depicted as a gross failing of Western democracy.
Now, as an unprecedented wave of infections rips through China, its state media is deliberately ignoring scenes of crowded hospital wards and packed crematoriums unfolding at home, while officials insist that by the government’s own count, few people are dying of Covid.
For nearly three years, China’s hardline zero-Covid policy shielded its population from the kind of mass deaths that haunted Western nations – a contrast repeatedly driven home by the Communist Party to illustrate the supposed superiority of its rule.
But as China abruptly abandoned that strategy, with little warning or apparent preparation, the prospect of surging deaths – projected by some studies to be as high as one million – has become a thorny issue for a government that staked its legitimacy on “saving lives.”
Officially, China reported only eight Covid deaths this month – a strikingly low figure given the rapid spread of the virus and the relatively low vaccine booster rates among the vulnerable elderly.
The official tally has been met with disbelief and ridicule online, where posts mourning loved ones dying of Covid abound. Caixin, a Chinese financial magazine known for its investigative pieces, reported on the deaths of two veteran state media journalists infected with Covid, on days the official toll stood at zero.
Other social media posts have described the frustration experienced by many in attempting to obtain a hearse and the difficulty of securing a slot for cremation at a funeral home.
When CNN visited a major crematorium in Beijing on Tuesday, the parking lot was completely packed, with a long line of cars snaking around the cremation area waiting to get in. Smoke billowed constantly from the furnaces, while yellow body bags piled up inside metal containers.
Grieving family members waiting in line clutched photos of the deceased. Some told CNN they had been waiting for more than a day to cremate their loved ones, who died after contracting Covid. One man told CNN the hospital where his friend passed away was too full to keep the body, because so many people had died there. His friend’s body was left on the hospital floor, he said.
In the nearby shops selling funerary items, a florist said she was running out of stock, and a convenience store owner said business had never been so busy.
In many parts of the country, crematoriums are struggling to keep up with an influx of bodies too, according to social media footage.
Outside a Beijing hospital designated for Covid patients, a steady stream of elderly patients in wheelchairs entered the facility when CNN visited on Tuesday. A man outside the hospital said space is running out, and he had to go the night before to register his elderly family member for a bed.
A hazmat-suited worker, who was sorting through yellow bags of medical waste, said he had been working extra hours in the evening to deal with the surge of Covid patients. “There is a lot of old people particularly,” he said.
Elderly Covid patients with underlying conditions were dying every day, the worker said.