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Chinese who lost relatives to COVID angry at failure to protect elderly

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BEIJING, Jan 18 (Reuters) – Former high school teacher Ailia was devastated when her 85-year-old father died after displaying COVID-19-like symptoms as the virus spread through her hometown in Jiangxi province. southeast of the country.

Although her father was never tested, Ailia and her mother were both confirmed positive around the same time and she believes COVID was the cause of her death.

As hundreds of millions of Chinese travel to reunite with families for the Lunar New Year holiday from January 21, many will do so after mourning relatives who died in the wave of COVID-19 that hit the world’s largest population. .

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

Ailia, 56, said that, like many Chinese, she supported reopening the economy. Her father died in late December, weeks after China abandoned its COVID restrictions.

“We wanted things to open up, but not this way – not at the expense of so many seniors, which has a huge impact on every family,” she said by phone.

On Saturday, China announced that there have been nearly 60,000 COVID-related hospital deaths since the end of “zero-COVID” – a 10-fold increase from previous numbers – but many international experts say that’s an undercount, in part because it excludes people who died at home, like Ailia’s father.

Among those deaths, 90% were aged 65 or older and the median age was 80.3 years, a Chinese official said on Saturday.

Many experts have said that China has failed to take advantage of keeping COVID-19 at bay for three years to better prepare its population for reopening, especially its hundreds of millions of elderly people – criticisms that China rejects.

Cited shortcomings included inadequate vaccination among the elderly and insufficient supplies of therapeutic drugs.

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

“If only they used the resources used to control the virus to protect the elderly,” said Ailia, who, like many people interviewed, declined to use her full name due to the sensitivity of criticizing China’s government.

Chinese authorities have repeatedly cited the importance of protecting the elderly, announcing a range of measures from vaccination campaigns to setting up a task force in Shanghai, China’s largest city, to identify high-risk groups.

Beijing’s decision to end “zero-COVID” came after rare widespread street protests against the policy in late November, but public outcry over China’s handling of the end of COVID restrictions was widely censored in social media.

Several analysts have said that China’s handling of COVID has eroded trust in the government, especially among upper-middle-class urban dwellers, but they do not see it as a threat to the rule of President Xi Jinping or the Communist Party.


Lila Hong, 33, who works in marketing for an automaker, was in Wuhan at the start of the pandemic three years ago. While her family went through that harrowing initial period when little was known about the coronavirus, last month she lost two grandparents and a great-uncle after they caught COVID-19.

Hong recalls visiting a crowded Wuhan crematorium with her father to collect her grandparents’ ashes — a bleak but common experience during China’s COVID outbreak.

“It should have been a very solemn and respectful situation. You would imagine it that way, but it actually felt like being in line at the hospital,” she said.

“I’m not saying reopening is not good,” Hong said. “I just think they should have given more time for prep work.”

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

Like others, he said he felt the aftermath of her death was chaotic, rushed and not following tradition.

“People have not had the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones. If we cannot live a decent life, we should at least have a decent death,” he said.

“Is very sad.”


Of the seven bereaved relatives Reuters spoke to for this article, all but one said COVID was left off their loved ones’ death certificates, even though they believe it was a major trigger for their deaths.

Relatives were also skeptical about the official death toll, with several citing a loss of trust in the government during three years of managing the “zero COVID” pandemic.

Philip, a 22-year-old student from the Hebei province that surrounds Beijing, supported November’s anti-lockdown protests but feels let down by the way the reopening has been handled and blames the government.

“It looks like they have all the power in the world and yet they haven’t done it well. If he were the CEO of a company I think he would have to step down,” said Philip, who lost his 78-year-old grandfather. on December 30th.

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

After his grandfather’s death, his body was removed from the bed, quickly replaced by another patient.

“The nurses and doctors were so busy. They seemed to be constantly writing death certificates and giving copies to relatives. There were so many deaths… it’s a huge tragedy.”

Additional reporting by Alessandro Diviggiano and the Beijing newsroom; Editing by Tony Munroe and Michael Perry

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