Chinese citizens angry over unwillingness to protect the elderly before abandoning ‘no coronavirus’ policies

Former high school teacher Elia was devastated when her 85-year-old father died after developing COVID-like symptoms as the virus swept through their hometown in the southeastern province of Jiangxi.

While her father was never tested, Aelia and her mother were confirmed infected around the same time and she believes COVID was the cause of his death.

As hundreds of millions of Chinese travel for family reunions for the Lunar New Year holiday that begins on January 21, many will do so after mourning relatives who perished in the world’s most populous wave of COVID-19.

For many, bereavement is mixed with anger over what they say was a lack of preparedness to protect the elderly before China abruptly abandoned its “zero COVID” policy in December 2022 after three years of testing, travel restrictions and lockdowns.

Elia, 56, said she, like countless Chinese, supported reopening the economy. Her father died in late December, weeks after China lifted coronavirus restrictions.

“We wanted things to open up, but not open up like that — not at the expense of a lot of the elderly, which has a huge impact on every family,” she said over the phone.

China on Saturday reported nearly 60,000 hospital deaths from the coronavirus since the end of “zero-Covid” — a 10-fold increase from previous figures — but many international experts say that is an undercount, in part because It excludes people who died in the house, such as Elijah’s father.

Of those killed, 90 percent were 65 or older, with an average age of 80.3, a Chinese official said on Saturday.

Many experts said China failed to capitalize on keeping COVID-19 largely at bay for three years to better prepare its population for reopening, especially hundreds of millions of elderly people — a criticism China dismisses.

The shortcomings cited included inadequate vaccination among the elderly and inadequate supplies of therapeutic drugs.

A Chinese official said on January 6 that more than 90% of people over 60 had been vaccinated, but the proportion of people over 80 who had received booster doses was only 40% as of November 28, the latest A date for which that data was available.

“If only they used the resources used to control the virus to protect the elderly,” said Elia, who, like many of the interviewees, declined to use their full names given the sensitivity to criticism of the Chinese government.

Chinese officials have repeatedly indicated the importance of protecting the elderly, and have announced various measures, from vaccination campaigns to setting up a task force in Shanghai, China’s largest city, to identify groups at risk.

Beijing’s decision to end “zero-Covid” came after rare large-scale street protests against the policy in late November, but the public complaint about China’s handling of ending COVID restrictions has been largely via heavily censored social media.

Many analysts said China’s handling of COVID had undermined trust in government, especially among upper-middle-class urbanites, but they did not see it as a threat to the rule of President Xi Jinping or the Communist Party.

China Eleventh warns of COVID-19 cases in rural areas, but says ‘light in the future’

Haste and chaos

Lila Hong, 33, who works in marketing for an automaker, was in Wuhan at the start of the epidemic there three years ago. While her family has gotten through that harrowing first period when little was known about the coronavirus, last month she lost two of her grandparents and an uncle after they contracted COVID-19.

Hong remembers visiting with her father to a crowded crematorium in Wuhan to collect her ancestors’ ashes – a grim but common experience during the coronavirus outbreak in China.

“It should have been a very solemn, respectful situation. You imagine it like that, but in reality it looked like a queue at the hospital,” she said.

“I’m not saying reopening is not good,” Hong said. “I think they should have given more time to the preparatory work.”

A Beijing resident surnamed Zhang, 66, said he has lost four people close to him to the virus since early December, including his aunt, 88, who became infected while in hospital.

Like others, he said he felt the aftermath of her death was chaotic, hasty, and unconventional.

Zhang, 66, a Beijing resident who has lost several people close to him since early December as coronavirus cases soared in China, poses for a photo in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, on January 13, 2023.
(Reuters/Thomas Peter)

“People haven’t had the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones. If we can’t live a decent life, then at least we should be able to get a decent death,” he said.

“It’s very sad.”

Doctors in China who have been discharged cite the virus as the cause of patients dying amid the outbreak

lack of confidence

Of seven bereaved relatives Reuters spoke to for this article, all but one said COVID was omitted from their loved ones’ death certificates, even though they believed it was a major cause of their deaths.

Relatives were similarly skeptical about the official death numbers, with many citing a loss of faith in the government during the three years of managing the “zero COVID” pandemic.

Philip, a 22-year-old student from Hebei province surrounding Beijing, supported anti-lockdown protests in November, but is frustrated with the way the reopening has gone and blames the government.

said Philip, who lost his 78-year-old grandfather on December 30.

“The hospital didn’t have any effective medicine,” he recalls. “It was very crowded and there weren’t enough beds.”

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After his grandfather died, his body was removed from the bed and quickly replaced by another patient.

“The nurses and doctors have been very busy. They seem to be constantly writing death certificates and giving copies to relatives. There have been so many deaths… It’s a great tragedy.”

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