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Remembering those who died during China's latest COVID surge

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

China has reported almost 60,000 deaths from COVID since early December, but those who lost loved ones during this time period say that's not the full story and that their family's pandemic-related tragedies have gone unacknowledged. So NPR's Emily Feng asked friends and family to submit remembrances of those who died over the last month. Here are the lives they lived.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Zhang Qing says his grandmother was just like so many grandmothers in China who doted on their families. Like many women of her generation, she was also uneducated. Her parents took her to a remote city as a child after heeding government calls to move west. And she never learned to read Chinese characters. Her biggest wish was to see 17-year-old Zhang go to college, which he did.

ZHANG QING: (Through interpreter) When I was young, my grandmother was the one who taught me how to sound out spoken Chinese. She always told me she regretted not finishing school and that she was illiterate. She dreamed that I would study hard and be happy.

FENG: Zhang was hoping to see her this Lunar New Year this weekend after months of COVID lockdowns kept them apart, but she caught COVID in mid-December and died 10 days later. Yet she was not part of the official COVID death toll. Her official cause of death was heart failure. The next time Zhang saw her was at her funeral.

KAREN WOODS: Had the country not screwed up its COVID policies, she would have received proper medical care, and she would have been fine.

FENG: That's Karen Woods, remembering her 94-year-old grandmother who died at home on Christmas, not of COVID, but of a minor heart condition that went untreated as hospitals stopped taking patients during the surge. Woods says her grandmother knew how to have fun. She joined a dance troupe in her retirement and organized field trips. And in the bitterness of her death, that's what Woods wants to remember - her grandmother's playful spirit.

WOODS: She went through a civil war in China, and I think that's one of the most important lessons I've taken from her - is that you just have to make the best out of the most impossible situation.

FENG: China has since rolled back nearly all of its COVID policies as a wave of infections rolls unchecked through the country. One Chinese university estimates 900 million people have been infected. But as late as mid-December, some parts of the country were still under lockdown - controls so severe that the Uyghur writer and poet Abdulla Sawut starved to death in the Xinjiang region, unable to leave his home for food or for blood pressure medication. The 72-year-old had already been weakened by a stint in prison, part of the Chinese state's roundup of prominent Uyghur intellectuals and entrepreneurs.

ABDUWELI AYUP: He chose to be alone. He chose to be not mainstream. He completely refused the propaganda - any kind of propaganda - and that's why I love him so much.

FENG: Writer Abduweli Ayup remembers Sawut's legacy. He says Sawut was a genius at poetic improvisation, the author of several novels, untranslated, about Uyghur resistance fighters and he was a poet who wrote about Sufi Islam and of young love.

AYUP: Of course, he wrote a lot about love.

FENG: Ayup once visited Sawut in his Xinjiang home. He was shocked to find a shabby house, nearly empty of furniture.

AYUP: And we asked him, how do you write because there is no desk and there is no laptop and anything? And he said, I wrote on the floor. I wrote when I am lying down.

FENG: Writing is part of how Jiwei Xiao, a writer and literature professor at Fairfield University, is processing the sudden death of her mother from COVID in late December. Her mother could be distant, but Xiao later learned she'd come from a family that prized sons, not daughters.

JIWEI XIAO: So almost as soon as she was born, she was abandoned.

FENG: And as Xiao grew up and moved to the U.S., her bond with her mother strengthened.

XIAO: When she visited me and she was just picking the - you know, the books from my shelf and started to read. So later on, I thought probably I got this love for literature from my mom instead of my dad.

FENG: Her mother loved cooking and walking among the trees. And the last time Xiao saw her mother was the summer before the pandemic in China.

XIAO: I hugged her as I always did. And she was so frail. And suddenly I was just overwhelmed by sadness. And maybe, I thought, how many times am I going to see her, or maybe I will never see her.

FENG: She never did see her again. The huge surge of infections this past December came so quickly, her mother had no time to prepare.

XIAO: The saddest part about her death is she waited for us.

FENG: Waited for her two daughters to visit her again in China, something impossible the last three years because China banned most inbound travelers. She held out until the winter solstice.

XIAO: So my mom died on the longest night of the year. It is also the crossroads in terms of season. I hope the days will become longer and things will become better.

FENG: But before that, Xiao thinks many families are still going through the darkest of times as infections continue in China and more deaths happen unacknowledged.

Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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