A somber New Year for Chinese grieving loved ones

STORY: Lunar New Year is meant to be a happy time for Chinese families, but this year for Zhang, and so many others like him across the country, it will be a much more somber affair.

For the 66-year-old Beijing resident has lost three of his close relatives, and a close family friend, to COVID-19.

All passed away from the disease after the country relaxed its zero-COVID policy.

One of them, an aunt, was infected whilst being treated in a Beijing hospital for another long-term illness.

“The hospital tried to move her from one building to another one, and two days later she passed away. On her death certificate, the cause of death is described as the 'heart failure'.”

By official definitions, that doesn’t count as a COVID-related death.

The lifting of restrictions in China, after widespread protests against them in November, has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes across the country, and dampened the mood for festivities.

“There's no holiday mood. The people are suffering, people are so anxious and people are going to drug stores, medical facility, hospital, the clinics, tried as hard as they can to get what they need. That is the reality, and this is sad.”

After global criticism of its coronavirus data, China on January 14 revealed nearly 60,000 people had died in hospital since it abandoned “zero-COVID” in early December.

But health experts say that likely doesn’t count many people dying at home, especially in rural areas where there's weaker medical systems.

The worry is that mass migration for Lunar New Year will bring another surge in cases, as hundreds of millions of Chinese return to small towns and rural villages, from urban areas.

State media has been filled with stories of rural hospitals and clinics bolstering supplies of drugs and equipment.

While various modelling groups predict the reopening could result in as many as 2.1 million deaths from the virus, accounting for a probable surge in cases over the Lunar New Year holidays.