Even in the first hour of the morning, crematoria were burning in Beijing. Smoke plumes against the cold blue sky.
Dongjiao Crematorium in the east of the city was busy. Ambulances arrive, grieving relatives gather and a line of vans carrying the coffins.
It has been reported that this crematorium has been specifically designated for COVID deaths – odd in a country that has only officially reported eight in nearly seven months.
Accurate data on China covid wave is simply not available.
It is not known how many people currently have it or how many people have died from the virus.
But after the the infamous zero COVID policy has been scrapped just under two weeks ago it is anecdotally very clear that the virus has spread Chinathe capital.
And it’s starting to show.
At another crematorium a short drive away, about 20 hearse vans stood in a line, taking turns waiting to enter. There was also tension in the air.
The drivers told us that the last few days had been busier than normal. They had been waiting for more than three hours.
Around the corner, families gathered to mourn and remember, many dressed in traditional white headscarves at Chinese funerals.
The problem for the authorities is that if numbers can be hidden… grieving parents cannot.
We met a group that did not want to be identified, but wanted to talk. They know COVID kills people, that’s why they were there.
“I don’t believe the government data on this,” said a family friend of the deceased.
“She was 73. In fact, she had no other serious underlying conditions.
“The main reason is that after being infected with Omicron, she had a persistent low fever.
“She didn’t realize at first that her condition was so serious, so she didn’t go to hospital. She was taken to hospital unconscious and died the same day.
“People don’t panic, they just don’t realize that Omicron can have such serious consequences. We never thought this virus would kill people so easily.”
There is clearly a great sensitivity around what is happening here. We were interrupted by the authorities almost everywhere we filmed. At one site a man tried to grab our camera as we walked away.
Some crematoriums were guarded by the police.
But there is a real pressure on this system. Outside a fever clinic in another part of Beijing, several people lined up outside, including an elderly lady in a wheelchair who appeared 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 corpse in a wheelchair was pushed through one door and into another. He was only covered with a duvet.
It’s impossible to know exactly what happened, but that doesn’t bode well for what’s going on inside.
The reality is that Chinese hospitals are under-resourced. There are not enough intensive care beds and the population has low levels of immunity.
Sixty percent of those over 80 have not been fully vaccinated.
Zero-COVID was dropped so abruptly that many say China simply didn’t give itself time to prepare.
Beijing is where the first wave hit, but smaller rural towns are likely to be hit harder.
It’s just not clear how bad things are. It is clear that they are likely to get worse.