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Bodies pile up in China’s morgues amid fears of Covid death-toll cover-up

A patient is wheeled into a fever clinic at a hospital in Beijing on Monday - Andy Wong/AP
A patient is wheeled into a fever clinic at a hospital in Beijing on Monday - Andy Wong/AP

Bodies are piling up in Chinese morgues and crematoriums amid signs that Beijing is covering up the true scale of Covid-related deaths following the sudden relaxation of President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy.

Dozens of coronavirus victims have been quietly cremated at a Beijing funeral home in the past week, according to staff and relatives, despite the official health agency on Monday admitting to just two deaths from the virus since Dec 3, when many restrictions were lifted.

The Beijing Dongjiao Funeral Home processed 30-40 people who had had Covid-19 last Wednesday, a worker who asked not to be named told the Financial Times (FT).

An AP reporter who visited the home on Friday was told by relatives that at least two people cremated there that day had died after testing positive.

About six people there said one of the victim’s death certificates had “pneumonia” listed as the cause of death regardless, despite the National Health Commission saying last week that anyone Covid positive when they die is classed as a virus fatality.

On Saturday, Reuters journalists witnessed hearses lined up outside a designated Covid-19 crematorium in Beijing and workers in hazmat suits carrying the dead inside the facility. Reuters could not immediately establish if the deaths were due to the coronavirus.

FT reporters have also seen numerous body bags at a hospital designated for virus patients.

Reporting on the ground suggests that China is significantly under playing the true toll of its decision to suddenly lift Covid restrictions after three years of draconian lockdowns and without an effective vaccine booster campaign, potentially to shield Mr Xi from any criticism.

Fear of Covid has emptied streets and roads, such as this one in Lujiazui financial district, Shanghai - Aly Song/Reuters
Fear of Covid has emptied streets and roads, such as this one in Lujiazui financial district, Shanghai - Aly Song/Reuters

It comes as new modelling suggests 1.5 million people could die in the worst-case scenario if the virus is allowed to spread unencumbered in China, with about 96 per cent of people catching it in the next three months, according to data from The Economist.

“The (official) number is clearly an undercount of Covid deaths,” said Yanzhong Huang, a global health specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank.

He said it could be “driven by efforts to avoid mass panic over the surge of Covid deaths”.

Another analyst called the figures “suspiciously low”.

There have been questions about China’s data since the beginning of the pandemic. The National Health Commission has reported just 5,237 Covid-19 deaths and 380,453 cases in the past three years – much lower numbers than in other major countries.

Covid deaths trend on social media

The two confirmed Covid deaths quickly became the top-trending topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform on Monday.

“What is the point of incomplete statistics?” asked one user. “Isn’t this cheating the public?”, wrote another.

The virus appears to be ripping through the country in the wake of the relaxation of restrictions. In the capital Beijing, fear of Covid has emptied streets and stripped pharmacies of medications.

“I’d say 60-70 per cent of my colleagues… are infected right now,” Liu, a 37-year-old university canteen worker in Beijing, told Reuters, requesting to be identified by his surname.

One of the country’s top epidemiologists at the weekend warned China was facing “the first of three waves” expected over the winter.

Wu Zunyou said the current surge would last until mid-January and mainly affect cities, before widespread travel over the Lunar New Year holiday triggers a second wave through the middle of February.

The third peak would hit from late February to mid-March as those infected over the holiday return to their places of work, he added.

Yet, as part of the new pivot, officials are now playing down the virus, with one top health adviser saying last week it could even just be called a “cold”.

A health worker waits for people to take swab samples to test for Covid-19 in Shanghai - Hector Retamal/AFP
A health worker waits for people to take swab samples to test for Covid-19 in Shanghai - Hector Retamal/AFP

One of China’s largest cities on Monday said it was allowing some people with visible symptoms to return to work.

Those working for the state who are “mildly symptomatic” in Chongqing, home to more than 30 million people, will be able to “work as normal” so long as they take personal precautions, according to state media.

The policy is a significant departure from the government’s previous hardline stance where a single infection at times was enough to lock down millions at home and even contacts would be sent into state-run quarantine.

Zhejiang province, home to more than 60 million people, also issued a similar notice over the weekend, saying those with mild symptoms could continue to work if necessary after taking personal protections.