Even first thing in the morning the crematoriums were burning in Beijing. Plumes of smoke against the cold blue sky.
Dongjiao crematorium to the east of the city was busy. Ambulances arriving, grieving relatives gathered round and a queue of vans carrying the coffins.
It’s been reported that this crematorium has been specifically designated for COVID deaths – strange in a country that has officially reported just eight in nearly seven months.
Accurate data on China’s COVID wave just isn’t available.
It’s unknown how many people currently have it, or how many people have died with the virus.
But after the infamous zero-COVID policy was dropped just under two weeks ago, it’s anecdotally very clear that the virus has ripped through China‘s capital city.
And it’s starting to show.
At another crematorium a short drive away, about 20 vans acting as hearses stood in a line, waiting in turn to enter. There was tension in the air too.
Drivers told us the last few days have been busier than normal. They’d been waiting over three hours.
Round the corner, families gathered to mourn and remember, many dressed in white scarfs traditional at Chinese funerals.
The problem for the authorities is that while numbers can be obscured… grieving relatives cannot.
We met one group who didn’t want to be identified, but they did want to talk. They know COVID is killing people, it’s the reason they were there.
“I don’t believe the government’s data on this,” a family friend of the dead lady said.
“She was 73 years old. She actually did not have any other serious underlying diseases.
“The main reason is that after she got infected with Omicron she had a lasting low fever.
“She did not realise at first that her condition was so serious, so she didn’t go to the hospital. She was taken to the hospital unconscious and died the same day.
“People are not panicking, they just do not realise that Omicron can cause such serious consequences. We never thought that this virus would kill people so easily.”
There’s clearly major sensitivity around what is happening here. We were interrupted by authorities nearly everywhere we filmed. At one site a man tried to grab our camera as we walked away.
Some crematoriums were being guarded by police.
But there is real pressure on this system. Outside a fever clinic in another part of Beijing multiple people queued up outside including an old lady in a wheelchair who appeared to be unconscious.
China’s COVID change is seismic
Through the window we could see a crowded room filled with people on IV drips.
At one point, what appeared to be a dead body in a wheelchair was pushed out of one door and into another. It was covered only by a quilt.
It’s impossible to know exactly what happened, but it doesn’t bode well for what’s going on inside.
The reality is that China’s hospitals are under-resourced. There are not enough intensive care beds and the population has low levels of immunity.
Sixty per cent of the over 80s have not been fully vaccinated.
Zero-COVID was dropped so abruptly many say China simply didn’t give itself time to prepare.
Beijing is where the first wave hit, but smaller rural towns will likely be hit harder.
It just isn’t clear how bad things are. It is clear they’ll likely get worse.