BEIJING/WUHAN, China (Reuters) — China on Saturday mourned the thousands of “martyrs” who have died in the coronavirus outbreak, flying the national flag at half mast across the country and suspending all forms of entertainment.
The day of mourning coincided with the start of the annual Qingming tomb-sweeping festival, when millions of Chinese families pay respects to their ancestors.
At 10 a.m. Beijing time, the country observed a three-minute silence to mourn those who died, including frontline medical workers and doctors.
In Zhongnanhai, the seat of political power in Beijing, President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders paid silent tribute in front of the national flag, with white flowers pinned to their chest as a mark of mourning, state media reported.
More than 3,300 people in mainland China have died in the epidemic, which first surfaced in the central province of Hubei late last year, according to statistics published by the National Health Commission.
In Wuhan, the capital of Hubei and the epicenter of the outbreak, all traffic lights in urban areas turned red at 10 a.m. and traffic came to a halt for three minutes.
Some 2,567 people have died in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people located in the middle reaches of the Yangtze river. The Wuhan deaths account for more than 75% of the country’s coronavirus fatalities.
Among those who died was Li Wenliang, a young doctor who tried to raise the alarm about the disease. Li was honored by the Hubei government this week, after initially being reprimanded by police in Wuhan for “spreading rumors”.
On Saturday, Hubei province’s top official Ying Yong visited the families of Li, as well as the relatives of Liu Zhiming — the dean of the city’s Wuchang Hospital, and Wu Yong, a community policeman who also both died after catching the virus, local television reported.
Offering his condolences, Ying told the families “the spirit of the martyrs must be carried on.”
Gui Yihong, 27, who was among thousands of Wuhan locals who volunteered to deliver food supplies to hospitals during the city’s months-long lockdown, recalled the fear, frustration and pain at Wuhan Central Hospital, where Li worked.
“If you weren’t at the frontlines you wouldn’t be able to experience this,” said Gui, as he laid flowers next to Wuhan’s 1954 flood memorial by the Yangtze.
“I had to (come) and bear witness. For the last 80 days we had fought between life and death, and finally gained victory. It was not easy at all to come by.”
While the worst is behind Wuhan, the virus has spread across the world since January, killing more than 55,000 people, infecting more than a million and paralyzing the global economy.
Wuhan banned all tomb-sweeping activities in its cemeteries until at least April 30, curtailing one of the most important dates in the traditional Chinese lunar new year calendar, which usually sees millions of families travel to tend to their ancestral graves, offer flowers and burn incense.
They have also told residents, most stuck at home due to lockdown restrictions, to use online streaming services to watch live as cemetery staff carry out those tasks.
Online, celebrities including “X-Men: Days of Future Past” star Fan Bingbing swapped their usual social media profile pictures for somber photos in grey or black, garnering millions of “likes” from fans.
Chinese gaming and social media giant Tencent suspended all online games on Saturday.
As of Friday, the total number of confirmed cases across the country stood at 81,639, including 19 new infections, the National Health Commission said.
Eighteen of the new cases involved travelers arriving from abroad. The remaining one new infection was a local case in Wuhan, a patient who was previously asymptomatic.
Asymptomatic people exhibit few signs of infection such as fevers or coughs, and are not included in the tally of confirmed cases by Chinese authorities until they do.
However, they are still infectious, and the government has warned of possible local transmissions if such asymptomatic cases are not properly monitored.
China reported 64 new asymptomatic cases as of Friday, including 26 travelers arriving from overseas. That took the total number of asymptomatic people currently under medical observation to 1,030, including 729 in Hubei.