China came to a standstill on Saturday to mourn patients and medical staff killed by the coronavirus, as the world’s most populous country observed a nationwide three-minute silence.
At 10 am (0200 GMT), citizens paused, cars, trains and ships sounded their horns, and air-raid sirens rang out in memory of the more than 3,000 lives claimed by the virus in China.
In Wuhan — the city where the virus first emerged late last year — sirens and horns sounded as people fell silent in the streets.
Tongji Hospital staff stood outside with heads bowed towards the main building, some in the protective hazmat suits that have become a symbol of the crisis worldwide.-
“I feel a lot of sorrow about our colleagues and patients who died,” Xu, a nurse at Tongji who worked on the frontlines treating coronavirus patients, told AFP, holding back tears.
“I hope they can rest well in heaven.”
Workers in protective wear paused silently beside barriers at one residential community — a reminder there are still tight restrictions on everyday life across Wuhan.
State media showed Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials standing outside a Beijing government compound, wearing white flowers.
National flags were lowered to half-mast across the country, including in the capital’s Tiananmen Square.
Pedestrians in a busy shopping district stopped and kept their heads low in silent tribute, while police stood with their riot shields down and bowed heads.
“During this process, a lot of people including the medical workers… have made extraordinary contributions. They are all heroes,” shopper Wang Yongna told AFP.
Park-goers paused their activities too, some with hands together in prayer.
Trains on Beijing’s subway network halted, and AFP saw passengers stand silently in a mark of respect.
– Remembrance –
Officials said the observance was a chance to mourn virus “martyrs” — an honorific title the government bestowed this week on 14 medical workers who died fighting the outbreak.
The hashtag “China remembers its heroes” had nearly 1.3 billion views on Twitter-like Weibo Saturday.
The martyrs include doctor Li Wenliang, a Wuhan whistleblower reprimanded by authorities for trying to warn others in the early days of the contagion.
Li’s death from COVID-19 in February prompted a national outpouring of grief and anger at the government’s handling of the crisis.
The ruling Communist Party has sought to direct criticism to local authorities in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province, who were accused of downplaying the severity of the virus.
Despite drastic measures to lock down the province in January, the epidemic spiralled into a global pandemic.
Some restrictions in Hubei were eased in recent weeks after the officially stated number of new infections dropped to near zero.
– Virtual tomb sweeping –
Saturday’s commemoration coincided with the annual Qing Ming holiday — the “tomb sweeping” festival — when Chinese people visit the graves of relatives and leave offerings in remembrance.
Some restrictions were tightened again this week to prevent a second wave of infections, with authorities discouraging cemetery visits to mark the festival.
Last year, nearly ten million people visited cemeteries across the three-day holiday, according to state news agency Xinhua.
At Beijing’s enormous Babaoshan cemetery, mourners made online reservations to visit graves in a limited number of time slots, with only three relatives allowed per tomb.
Nobody was coming or leaving Wuhan’s Biandanshan Cemetery Saturday afternoon, and security staff stood at the gate.
Another cemetery visited by AFP was shut.
Wuhan resident Wang Yanhong, barred from visiting the graves of her grandfather and brother this year, dropped a bouquet of flowers into the river instead.
“I made a silent tribute in my heart, and stood there for a while,” she told AFP.
Some residents burned paper money on the streets Friday, the festival’s eve.
“We can only remember our relatives at home,” a 50-year-old resident surnamed Li told AFP.
Cemeteries across China are offering a “cloud tomb-sweeping” service: families can honour their ancestors by watching a live stream of cemetery staff attending to graves on their behalf.
Websites are also offering people the chance to pay their respects at a “virtual” tomb, including by lighting a digital candle and leaving a dish of digital fruit.