Families in Chenghe, a village of 4,000 people in eastern China, bury the ashes of their dead in little mounds near the fields they till. In early January, more than 100 new piles appeared between bright green rows of garlic sprouts. The sound of suo na, a double-reed horn villagers play to commemorate the deceased, cut through the quiet.
A-Peng was planning to add another grave there for his father, who’d died the day before. But first he needed to stand in line to get a time slot for cremation, behind more than 200 others. He was used to waiting. Whenever the government had implemented strict lockdowns to prevent the spread of Covid-19, A-Peng—who asked to go by his nickname because he feared repercussions for talking about China’s pandemic response—had struggled to support his household as factories shut down and customer traffic to the store he runs slowed. Then, when the policies to eliminate Covid ended abruptly in early December, the virus ripped through the whole country, including everyone in A-Peng’s family. More than 80% of the population was infected, according to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. His 75-year-old father started having trouble breathing, then suffered two episodes of brain bleeding. The small county hospital didn’t have room for him in intensive care. He died there four days later.