Never has the winter felt so suffocating for Zou, who counted about 20 deaths among social circles amid the massive COVID wave gripping China.
Memorial tents, indicating households that have lost family members, are visible on every street in his hometown, the historic city of Yueyang with a population of about 20,000 in southern China’s mountainous Hunan Province—so many that “it’s scary,” Zou, who only provided his surname for fear of reprisals, told The Epoch Times.
As the outbreak casts a huge shadow over China, Zou said that even the sky was darker than usual without much sunlight, further heightening a sense of dread in the small town. In the past three to four days alone, 100 to 200 have died from the disease, he said on Jan. 23.
In Shaoyang city, about a four-hour drive south and with a population of about 1.5 million, a resident, who declined to provide his name for safety reasons, said thousands of elderly have likely died during the outbreak. At one point, four families living on the same alley were in mourning, he told The Epoch Times on Jan. 18, describing it as “unbelievable.”
The mounting fears among the populace has dampened the holiday spirit amid the Lunar New Year festivities that began over the weekend, normally the biggest celebration of the year.
A clip circulating on social media two days before the Chinese New Year, shot from a car passing through a residential area, shows a deserted street lined with an unceasing array of wreaths and blue-and-white paper lanterns marking the deceased.
“You watch what happens to your neighbors and worry about your own families,” a woman surnamed Bao of Shijiazhuang city in northern China’s Hebei province, told The Epoch Times. Bao did not provide her first name due to safety concerns. The new year for her went by without usual visits to her extended relations and chatter, Bao said.
As the virus sweeps through the country, the Chinese communist regime has continued to conceal the true scale of the outbreak. But widespread accounts of deaths, overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums, and a shortage of funeral supplies point to a significant death toll.
The rise in deaths has led to crematoriums around the country scrambling to dramatically expand their capacity.
An Epoch Times review of 10 provinces and major cities found more than 30 funeral homes publishing tenders for cremation ovens, ash urns, vans to transport bodies, and refrigerators over the past three weeks alone.
“Because of the sharp surge in business, we urgently need to buy two ash sorting machines and post-processing equipment,” read one Jan. 19 notice published by Huzhou Funeral House in Zhejiang Province, located south of Shanghai.
In a now-deleted Jan. 6 tender from Shantou city government in southern Guangdong Province, a funeral parlor solicited an “emergency purchase” of two incinerators to be ready for use in 10 days. Around that time, a major Shanghai crematorium told The Epoch Times they were burning 400 to 500 bodies every day—four to five times their previous workload.
Funeral Supplies Exhausted
As mourning displays lined Chinese streets and hearses crowded outside of crematoriums, the price of burial merchandise has surged by several fold amid skyrocketing demand.
Multiple ash urns and coffins suppliers confirmed they were out of stock or running extremely low on inventory when reached by The Epoch Times ahead of the Lunar New Year. Each interviewee either gave only their surname or declined to be named for fear of reprisals.
An ash urn manufacturer in Henan of China’s east-central region, the country’s third-most populous province, was out of stock and restocking could take about a month, a sales representative surnamed Sun said. Sun noted that this was unprecedented during the nearly two decades that She has been working in the industry.
“It was never like this,” Qiu, a representative of a different ash urn maker in the neighboring province Shandong, told The Epoch Times, attributing COVID as the cause of the “storm” of incoming orders.
A coffin maker in Jingdezhen, a city famed for ceramic arts, said he had no more than two on hand for the product lines that haven’t sold out, and has told clients to buy whatever is available without choosing.
“Frankly, too many people died this year and the demand is too high, we just can’t make enough,” he told The Epoch Times.
Accounts from the locals across the country were equally grim.
Liang Yan, who used a pseudonym for safety reasons, from Suzhou, a city neighboring Shanghai, lost three elderly family members, including her mother, on the same day earlier this month. The local funeral home had set a quota of 400 spots over a 24-hour period. On Jan. 5, she and several others from her family tried to snatch a number when the spots opened at midnight. They were placed at about the 160th spot at 28 seconds. The funeral cost for her mother was more than 10,000 yuan (about $14,740), double the amount for such service in the past.
The extreme shortage of funeral supplies meant there was no cardboard or wooden coffins available for her mother’s remains. All there was was a paper bag and shroud, she told The Epoch Times.
As the vast Chinese population struggles under an explosive COVID outbreak, authorities in Beijing have sought to superimpose a different reality.
On the same day a top Chinese state-backed university released a report indicating 900 million infections during the latest COVID wave, officials at Beijing’s Center for Disease Prevention and Control convened a conference celebrating three years of anti-outbreak work, during which they gave out dozens of awards, with the center’s Party chief Huang Chun declaring the agency has “lived up to to their mission.”
Echoing the triumphant tone was Jiang Yunzhong, a Marxist scholar and Party official at the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, who said that the COVID death toll in China “still falls in an acceptable range.”
“Even if a few million die, so what?” he wrote on Chinese social media on Jan. 14. “China had 10 million deaths in 2021, even if there are 5 million more deaths, it’s just a 50 percent increase—a difference between two deaths versus three deaths. ”
So far, the regime has acknowledged some 72,000 deaths, a number drawing a high degree of skepticism among experts and residents.
“It’s a tragedy in human history,” said Zou, the man from Yueyang township. “They see this as a funny joke and even want to boast about their accomplishment and make it a model for the world. They don’t care at all what the regular people think.”
The unrealistic virus figures are what has changed minds of the older generation who grew up under the regime’s brainwashing and would normally not countenance any discussion critical of the Chinese Communist Party, according to Zou, who described this as a sign of the “red genes breaking down.”
“I could see they were really angry,” he said. “When they speak, they would ask: ‘Why are they reporting data like this?’ They couldn’t understand.”
“They used to excuse everything [the authorities] said, but now they have completely lost trust in them.”
Chang Chun, Yi Ru, and Frank Fang contributed to this report.
Eva Fu is a New York-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on U.S. politics, U.S.-China relations, religious freedom, and human rights. Contact Eva at firstname.lastname@example.org