On Monday, Chinese health authorities announced two Covid deaths, both in the capital Beijing, which is grappling with its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic.
Long queues for cremation
They were the first officially reported deaths since the dramatic easing of restrictions on December 7, although Chinese social media posts have pointed to a surge in demand at Beijing’s funeral homes and crematoriums in recent weeks.
An employee at a funeral home on the outskirts of Beijing told CNN they were swamped by the long queues for cremation, and customers would need to wait until at least the next day to cremate their loved ones.
On Baidu, China’s dominant online search engine, searches for “funeral homes” by Beijing residents have hit a record high since the pandemic began.
Other major cities are also facing a surge in infections. In the financial hub of Shanghai, schools have moved most classes online starting from Monday. In the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, authorities have told students that are already taking online classes and pre-schoolers not to prepare for a return to school.
Difficult to count
In the megacity of Chongqing in the southwest, authorities announced on Sunday that public sector workers testing positive for Covid can go to work “as normal” – a remarkable turnaround for a city that only weeks ago had been in the throes of a mass lockdown.
It is difficult to judge the true scale of the outbreak by official numbers. China stopped reporting asymptomatic cases last week, conceding it was no longer possible to track the actual number of infections. These asymptomatic cases used to account for the bulk of the country’s official caseload. But the rest of the case count has been rendered meaningless too, as cities roll back mass testing and allow people to use antigen tests and isolate at home.
Chinese experts have warned that the worst is yet to come. Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist at the Chinese CDC, said the country is being hit by the first of three expected waves of infections this winter.
Speaking at a conference in Beijing on Saturday, Wu said the current wave would run until mid-January. The second wave is expected to last from late January to mid-February next year, triggered by the mass travel ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, which falls on January 21.
Every year, hundreds of millions of people who have left their hometowns to build a life in China’s fast growing cities pour into trains, buses and planes to see their family – a weeks-long travel rush known as the largest annual human migration on Earth.
For three consecutive years, these homecoming trips have been discouraged by authorities under the zero-Covid policy. And experts warn that with domestic travel restrictions lifted, the virus could sweep through China’s countryside, where vaccination rates are lower and medical resources are lacking.
A third wave of cases would run from late February to mid-March as people returned to work after the week-long holiday, Wu said.
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