'Hospital chaos and crematorium queues': What China looks like after ending its zero-Covid policy

This video contains distressing images

ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward delivers a special report on the fallout from the abandonment of China's zero-Covid policy

For three years the Chinese government has been extolling the success of its zero-Covid policy.

We were told it had saved lives and spared people in China from the devastation the virus had reaped elsewhere, namely the United States. But now, with chaos in hospitals, queues at crematoriums and people begging for medicine online, many are questioning was it worth it, when the country has ended up facing the same fate. Some are going as far as to call the government reckless having followed the policy for so long only to abandon it and drop all the restrictions, without proper warning or preparation. So much time and money were spent on mass testing and enforcing lockdowns, but nothing appears to have been done in the past years to improve vaccination rates, stockpile medicines or prepare hospitals for an eventual, inevitable exit from the pandemic.

At one emergency ward in Shanghai yesterday there was hardly an available space on the floor.

It was a chaotic scene with beds and people everywhere. Most of the patients lay still, hooked up to drips or oxygen tanks, their desperate relatives by their sides.

We could hear several of them with that familiar dry, heaving Covid cough, and one person could be heard distinctly moaning in pain. For many, mostly elderly, the sudden end of zero-Covid in China has proved dangerous.

A variant of Omicron has been able to spread almost unchecked through the world’s largest population, a majority of whom have had no exposure to the virus and limited access to the latest vaccines or medicines.

A man places his hand on a casket outside a crematorium in Beijing. Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Minutes leaked from a government meeting indicate up to 10 million people were being infected every day in the weeks after zero-Covid was dropped.

On Monday this week the authorities decided to stop giving daily figures, and the official death toll for December was less than 50. But videos shared online show hundreds queuing up at funeral homes and bodies piled up in morgues and at crematoriums.

Footage shared online showed hundreds of people queuing up at funeral homes. Credit: ITV News

We were filming at one busy crematorium in Shanghai when workers dressed in hazmat suits received not a coffin, but a body bag, another victim of Covid. Every family we spoke to at that funeral home, and another we visited, had lost someone to the virus. When we asked, more than one responded: “What other kind of death is there right now?” It is clear from what we were told by grieving families and by those in the hospitals the number of deaths is far higher than that disclosed by the authorities. A UK-based health data analysis firm Airfinity has predicted that on January 13 this latest outbreak in China will reach its peak of 3.7 million infections per day.

The company has estimated that since the start of December, 345,560 people have died and that there are still 21,300 people dying every day. Those estimates are based on previously stated official figures, population size and how the virus has spread in other countries. It could be an exaggeration, but anecdotal evidence, and information we have gathered from talking to people in various parts of the country and reports shared online, indicate China is dealing with one of the worst outbreaks the world has seen. It was unprecedented public protests at the end of November and dire economic forecasts which eventually forced an embarrassing U-turn on zero-Covid. Right up to almost the day it was scrapped the Communist Party insisted it was the best policy to deal with the pandemic.

The Chinese government's devotion to - and subsequent abrupt abandonment of - its zero-Covid policy has left the country 'exposed to the ravages of the virus', Debi Edward reports

The anger expressed during those demonstrations represent the greatest public challenge President Xi Jinping has faced during his decade in charge. That anger that was levelled at the draconian and never-ending restrictions of zero-Covid are now being extended to the way it was dropped so abruptly and absolutely.

The official narrative is it has been a timely and orderly transition. That positive spin is helped by the fact the re-opening comes just in time for Chinese New Year. Railway stations are back to almost pre-pandemic levels and markets are bustling with customers. On the surface in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, life looks to be getting back to normal. But concern is turning to how rural areas with less resources will cope under their expected strain.

The reopening of the country comes just in time for Chinese New Year. Credit: ITV News

Millions are enjoying their freedom to travel and heading home from the cities to smaller towns and villages for next week’s Chinese New Year holiday.

Some provinces have even asked people not to make the journey for fear of spreading the virus to places where they don’t have the infrastructure to deal with thousands of cases. When we are witnessing scenes reminiscent of 2020 you question the time and money spent on a policy that only delayed China’s day of reckoning with the pandemic.

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