The actual death toll from the new coronavirus in Wuhan, China may top 40,000 — far exceeding Chinese authorities claim that roughly 2,500 people died in the city which served as the epicenter of the global pandemic.
With lockdown restrictions slowly being lifted in the central Chinese city, funeral homes have begun dispensing urns to families who lost loved ones to the virus.
Officially, the city suffered more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases, and an estimated 2,535 deaths. The mass dispensation of cremated remains, however, belies those figures.
Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that in the previous week, seven large funeral homes serving the massive metropolitan area had been handing out an average of 500 urns each daily.
“It [the official death toll] can’t be right … because the incinerators have been working round the clock, so how can so few people have died?” a Wuhan resident surnamed Zhang told RFA on March 29.
“They started distributing ashes and starting interment ceremonies on Monday [March 25],” he said.
Caixin, a Chinese investigative news outlet, likewise reported that the reopening of mortuaries in Wuhan saw family members waiting up to five-hour queues to receive the ashes of their loved ones.
One photo published by the outlet showed a truck at one mortuary carrying 2,500 urns, with the driver saying he had delivered the same amount on the previous day.
Another photograph taken on the same day at the facility showed a stack of urns numbering 3,500.
Caixin noted that taken together, the number of urns documented at the mortuary during that period alone is double the official death toll in the city.
Chinese social media users are estimating that 3,500 urns will be handed over each day from March 23 to April 4, which corresponds with Qing Ming, known as Tomb Sweeping Day, when families visit the the tombs of their ancestors to clean the gravesites.
If correct, that estimate would bring the death toll to 42,000.
Another popular estimate is based on the cremation capacity of the funeral homes in the city, which puts the death toll at 46,800.
One Wuhan resident named Chen Yaohui told RFA that city officials have been handing out 3,000 yuan ($422.8) in funeral allowances” as “hush money” to keep a lid on the actual fatality rate.
“The official number of deaths was 2,500 people … but before the epidemic began, the city’s crematoriums typically cremated around 220 people a day,” he said.
“But during the epidemic, they transferred cremation workers from around China to Wuhan keep cremate bodies around the clock,” he said.
Chen added that no one in the city believed the official death toll.
Another resident identified as Gao likewise estimated that based on the city’s crematorium capacity and recent activity, the official death toll seems implausible.
“Anyone looking at that figure will realize, anyone with any ability to think,” Gao said. “What are they talking about [2,535] people?”
“Seven crematoriums could get through more than that [in a single day].”
Bloomberg reports that in the fourth quarter of 2019, when the new coronavirus pandemic began, there were 56,007 cremations in Wuhan, according to data from the city’s civil affairs agency.
That figure is 1,583 higher than the fourth quarter of 2018 and 2,231 higher than the fourth quarter of 2017.
Bloomberg, citing Caxin, noted that some likely died of the new coronavirus without ever being tested for the disease. People are also believed to have died from other conditions because they were unable to get adequate care on account of the city’s overburdened health system.