Beijing death toll mounts as Covid sweeps through Chinese capital

Evidence of a wave of Covid-19 deaths is beginning to emerge in Beijing despite official tallies showing no fatalities since an uncontrolled outbreak began sweeping through China’s capital this week.

Staff at one crematorium in Beijing said they cremated the bodies of at least 30 Covid victims on Wednesday and Financial Times reporters saw two body bags at a special hospital designated for coronavirus patients.

“We cremated 150 bodies [on Wednesday], many times more than a typical day last winter,” said an employee at the state-owned Beijing Dongjiao Funeral Home, who asked not to be named. “Thirty or 40 had Covid.”

“We are doing it as quickly as possible [and] prioritising Covid deaths,” the employee added. “We’re cremating them the same day they are brought in.”

Chinese officials have not reported any Covid-related deaths nationwide since December 4. But staff at two Beijing crematoria said that overall deaths were much higher than normal as the capital is engulfed by its first significant coronavirus outbreak.

The two body bags were visible in a room off the lobby of Shuangqiao Hospital, which has been designated for Covid patients. One 86-year-old Covid patient in a wheelchair was struggling to keep his eyes open in a hallway. The man’s relatives, who asked to not be named, said he had stopped eating soon after catching the virus four days earlier.

At Chui Yang Liu Hospital, which treats Covid and non-Covid patients, four bodies on stretchers were covered with white cloth and pushed to the side of the emergency room on Thursday night. “Some had [Covid] and some did not,” said an emergency room doctor.

FT reporters saw another man on the floor in an entryway gasping for air on Thursday but could not confirm if he had Covid.

By Friday morning, the man, who appeared to be in his 60s, remained lying in the same location and looked extremely pale. A small group of people moving a casket out the door said it contained the body of a relative who had died of Covid.

The virus is ripping through the Chinese capital just a week after authorities abandoned nationwide zero-Covid controls with little forewarning, leaving many Beijing residents struggling to find medication and access medical care. The surge is pushing the healthcare system to its limits, with medical workers in the capital asked to remain on the job even if they are infected.

China’s National Health Commission ceased providing total Covid case counts on Wednesday and has not reported any deaths in the country since December 4, when the top medical body recorded two fatalities in Shandong and Sichuan provinces a day earlier.

But at the Beijing Dongjiao Funeral Home on Thursday, a line of black vans carrying caskets and cars full of mourners snaked through the full parking lot. A driver who did not want to be named said he and colleagues were collectively bringing in 20 to 30 bodies per day, compared with four or five on typical days.

One Beijing resident, Wei Yansu, said her grandmother died this week in neighbouring Hebei province four days after being diagnosed with Covid. “She was infected during this wave of outbreak and it caused a cerebral infarction,” Wei said.

Signs posted around the Tongzhou Funeral Home, in Beijing’s eastern suburbs, said that the facility had begun limiting the number of bodies it could take from people registered outside the district since last Sunday because of “furnace maintenance”.

Both crematoria referred questions to Beijing’s civil affairs department, which did not respond to a request for comment. China’s NHC and the Beijing Health Commission did not respond to requests for comment. Phone calls to Shuangqiao Hospital went unanswered after doctors working there said they could not speak with the media.

Tongzhou Funeral Home employees, who asked not to be identified, told the FT the facility was facing unusually large demand and had “Covid deaths every day”, though it was not clear how many of the overall deaths were Covid-related.

“We’re burning from morning until 10pm,” one said. “The furnaces can’t take it.”

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