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There's a COVID surge in China and a waiting list for cremations

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

China is experiencing a huge wave of COVID infections. The exact number is not known, and according to the government, only a handful of people in the entire country have died. But crematoriums and funeral homes in Beijing say they're overwhelmed. NPR's Emily Feng brings us this snapshot.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Dongjiao Crematorium is one of Beijing's biggest, servicing the entire east side of the capital city. And at the start of this week, it was teeming. A line of hearses and grieving families filled the intake lot. Staff say there's a 10-day waiting list for cremations.

UNIDENTIFIED HEARSE DRIVER: (Speaking in non-English language).

FENG: No cars can get in. It's too crowded, one hearse driver grumbles.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking in non-English language).

FENG: Another family is silent. They lost their elderly grandfather to COVID this past weekend, they tell NPR. Yet China didn't report any deaths from this COVID surge until this week.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking non-English language).

FENG: Like all the people in China we interviewed for this story, this man's grandson didn't want to be named because of how sensitive the topic of COVID deaths is in China. But he tells NPR of how a week ago, his grandfather started running a fever and tested positive, but they could not find a hospital with a free bed for him.

YANJUN WANG: Well, yeah, it's kind of crazy.

FENG: Yanjun Wang is a senior fellow following public health at the Council on Foreign Relations. He explains how China found itself facing down a winter epidemic, because for nearly three years, the focus was only on containing cases but not preparing to treat them.

WANG: Other measures, especially vaccination on the elderly, stockpiling of antivirals are all relegated to, like, a back-burner issue.

FENG: Meaning the state poured all of its resources into containing COVID and policing infections, but very little on promoting vaccines and stocking up on medicine and antivirals. And that's why cases are exploding, even if the government won't disclose data on how bad the problem is. Data such as...

WANG: The people who are hospitalized and those - the ICU bed occupancy rate - and so that makes it very difficult to estimate - right? - the rising, severe cases.

FENG: Another reason why China has declared so few official deaths is because COVID-positive patients who die but who also have underlying conditions are not considered COVID deaths within hospitals, a far stricter threshold than in the U.S., but which Chinese officials defended during a Tuesday press conference. Farther up north in Beijing suburbs, the Dongjiao Crematorium's incinerators are operating around the clock now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking non-English language).

FENG: The incinerator operators refuse to answer whether there are more bodies coming in than normal. Like most funerary shops and crematoria, they've been explicitly instructed not to talk to media. China has also suspended most of its COVID testing booths, and rapid, at-home tests are sold out and hard to come by. That means there's no accurate insight into exactly how far the virus has spread, and that's left bereft families without answers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking non-English language).

FENG: This man says his 92-year-old grandmother died in the hospital over the weekend, but staff couldn't tell him what she died of. And due to pandemic regulations, he couldn't see her in her last moments. The doctor said she didn't have many COVID symptoms, but nurses told him everyone on the hospital staff had tested positive. Early on in the pandemic, the Chinese state's opaqueness sparked panic as the virus spread. Now, almost three years later and in the midst of its biggest surge of COVID infections yet, the same public confusion and fear reigns.

Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.