Elderly patients lined hospital wards in China’s major cities on Thursday as the country battled a wave of Covid cases.
The virus is surging in China in an outbreak that authorities say is impossible to track after the end of mandatory mass testing.
Attached to a breathing tube under a pile of blankets, an elderly man with Covid-19 lay whimpering on a stretcher in the emergency department of a hospital in central China.
A paramedic at the First Affiliated Hospital of Chongqing Medical University, who confirmed the elderly man was a Covid patient, said he had collected more than 10 people a day, 80 to 90 percent of whom were infected with coronavirus
“Most of them are seniors,” he said.
“Many hospital workers are also positive, but we have no choice but to keep working.”
The old man waited half an hour to be treated, while in a nearby room AFP saw six other people in sick beds surrounded by doctors and upset relatives.
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They were also mostly elderly, and when asked if they were all Covid patients, one doctor said: “Basically”.
Five were attached to respirators and had obvious breathing difficulties.
Millions of elderly people across China are still not fully vaccinated, raising concerns that the virus could kill the most vulnerable citizens in large numbers.
Under the new government guidelines, however, many of these deaths would not be blamed on Covid.
In Shanghai, the corridors of an emergency department were lined with stretchers filled with elderly people connected to oxygen tanks.
An AFP reporter counted at least 15 such patients leaving the wards in the corridor, some with their suitcases next to trolleys.
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Wrapped in colorful quilts, they wheezed weakly through masks as medical workers tended to them. Many seemed almost unresponsive.
Staff and visitors did not respond to questions from AFP.
– “Constantly Busy” –
At a large crematorium on the rural outskirts of Chongqing, a long line of cars waited for parking spaces inside the compound on Thursday afternoon.
Dozens of grieving relatives moved in groups, some carrying wooden urns, as funeral gongs sounded and mourners burned incense.
A middle-aged man carrying an urn told AFP that an elderly relative had died after testing positive for the virus.
“It’s been constantly busy lately,” said a crematorium driver as he sat smoking in his car.
“We work more than 10 hours a day with few breaks.”
Another staff member wearing a coat and face shield agreed.
“It is not possible to put the bodies in the fridge, they must be burned the same day”, he said.
About 20 hearses lined the road to another crematorium in the south of the city on Thursday evening.
Inside was a large parking lot, where bodies on stretchers were being unloaded onto a small raised platform before being moved to the upper levels.
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AFP saw about 40 bodies loaded onto the platform in two hours.
Next to the raised platform were two cold freezer rooms. In one, AFP saw two bodies covered in stretchers and another body partially uncovered on the floor.
Police and security guards patrolled the premises.
– “He died too soon” –
A steady stream of cars carrying mourners arrived at a separate building where families were holding vigils.
Some relatives watched through the glass as their loved ones were cremated in adjacent rooms.
A woman in her 20s told AFP she suspected her father had died from the virus, although he had not been tested.
“He died too soon, on the way to the hospital,” she sobbed. “He had lung problems to begin with… He was only 69.”
Another mourner said their relative had died of pneumonia, although they weren’t sure it was caused by Covid.
“He wasn’t feeling well, so we took him to the clinic the day before yesterday – the hospital wouldn’t take him,” she said.
One woman said her elderly relative, who was suffering from cold symptoms, had tested negative but died after they could not get an ambulance in time.
On the top floor, near the furnaces, the air was thick with musky, sweet-smelling smoke.