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China and Covid19

Fangcang Diaries: China’s Makeshift Covid Hospitals, from Wuhan to the Future

Fangcang hospitals are here to stay as long as China sticks to its current zero-Covid path.

Manya Koetse

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By mid 2020, many thought Fangcang, China’s Covid-19 makeshift hospitals, had become a thing of the past. Instead, they have become a part of the country’s future. Through the course of the pandemic, perceptions of China’s ‘square cabin’ Covid hospitals have drastically changed. Chinese social media users get a glimpse of life inside the Fangcang hospitals thanks to patients’ online diaries, videos, and photos.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yi Magazin: Fangcang ohne Ende: Chinas Covid-Krankenhäuser damals und heute.
 

In February of 2020, the impressive construction of two enormous emergency field hospitals in Covid-stricken Wuhan captured the world’s attention. The Huoshenshan and Leishenshan Hospitals were constructed in a matter of days and combined they could take in 2,500 patients. The construction process was live-streamed by state media and sped-up drone footage of a large empty field transforming into a fully functioning hospital received millions of clicks around the internet.

Along with mass-testing and local lockdowns, the so-called ‘Fangcang’ shelter hospitals are seen as a key solution in ‘fighting Covid-19 the Chinese way’ to alleviate the pressure on public hospitals and lower Covid-19 mortality rates by quarantining and treating patients with confirmed infections.

Within a matter of 2,5 years, Fangcang emerged as a novel concept on China’s coronavirus battleground and then became a part of everyday life in a zero Covid society. Here, we will zoom in on China’s Fangcang phenomenon and changes in the public’s perceptions of it.

 

MORE THAN MASH: THE NOVEL FANGCANG CONCEPT

 

Fāngcāng (方舱) literally means ‘square cabin,’ referring to a modular or prefabricated mobile cabin hospital. Although the concept of an emergency field hospital or makeshift hospital is not new, Fangcang hospitals are labeled as a “novel public health concept” due to their specific use during China’s Covid crisis (Chen et al 2020).

Some studies say that China’s Covid-19 Fangcang hospitals were modeled after emergency cabins used during the Wenchuan and Yushu earthquakes in 2008 and 2010 (Wang et al 2020, 2). According to the biggest Chinese-language online encyclopedia, Baidu Baike, the term actually comes from the United States, where the U.S. Army first started developing such cabins – Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH units) – in the early 1950s and used them during the Korean War. The Chinese Fangcang hospital, however, is not really the same and the concept was implemented for the first time in Wuhan in February 2020.

Aerial view of the American 46th MASH unit (photo by Robert L. Emanuele, published at https://bulletin.facs.org/)

In China, Fangcang hospitals are large, temporary hospitals for the isolation, treatment, and disease monitoring of Covid-19 patients with mild-to-moderate symptoms. By taking in and quarantining people who have tested positive for Covid-19, they are meant to reduce the transmission of the virus within households and communities, while also providing treatment to patients with mild symptoms (Fang et al 2020, 2). In doing so, they dramatically reduce the pressure on regular hospitals, which need their beds to solely treat patients with severe and critical conditions.

Construction of Huoshenshan Hospital, image via Sohu.com.

The 1,000-bed Huoshenshan Hospital (火神山医院) was constructed within a matter of days, starting on January 23, 2020, and ending on February 2. The first patients were admitted a day later. The construction of the 1,500 bed Leishenshan Hospital (雷神山医院) started on the 26th of January and was completed on 6 February 2020.

Many other Fangcang hospitals were not constructed like these shelter hospitals but were built by converting large (public) buildings such as exhibition centers, stadiums, or schools into healthcare facilities. In Wuhan, over a dozen more Fangcang hospitals were opened in February of 2020 to provide beds for Covid-19 patients before all being suspended on March 10 of that year when the crisis was under control.

 

FANGCANG ON SOCIAL MEDIA: A CHANGING IMAGE

 

In the early stages of the pandemic, Chinese social media users got a glimpse of life inside the Fangcang hospitals through official media videos and through footage and photos posted by people staying there. Up to the present day, patients share their quarantine experiences on social media using hashtags such as “Fangcang Diaries” (#方舱日记#).

Medical workers leading a dance exercise session for COVID-19 patients at a Fangcang in Wuhan, March 2020. Photo posted on Weibo (@滨州文旅).

In the Wuhan days, there were videos of patients dancing together inside the hospitals, with people cheering on the positivity of patients and the dedication of the healthcare workers.

Photo posted from a Wuhan Fangcang by Weibo user (@121314人生需要转折) on February 29, 2020.

One photo of a patient reading Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order even went viral on Weibo. Many admired the patient for reading such heavy literature during his Fangcang stay and the man became famous overnight as ‘the invincible Wuhan-er.’

The Invincible Wuhan-er, see more here.

A young woman known as A Nian (阿念) also wrote on social media about her quarantine stay at one of Wuhan’s Fangcang hospitals in February of 2020. When her grandmother fell critically ill during her stay at the city’s Huoshenshan hospital, A Nian asked to be transferred to the same Fangcang so that she could take care of her. Despite having A Nian by her side, the grandmother passed away. A Nian’s experiences at the Wuhan Fangcang hospitals were eventually published in the book Wuhan Girl A Nian Diary (武汉女孩阿念日记). The book paints a picture of the Fangcang where resilience, warmth, and optimism dominate the overall atmosphere.

The Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan was a national war against the virus, and the Fangcang hospitals were described and represented as a necessary and praised tool within this united fight. The medical staff members working there were the heroes on the frontline, and many social media users honored and thanked them for their efforts.

After the shelter hospitals in Wuhan gradually closed, the social media focus shifted to how the Covid crisis became a pandemic and caused chaos in the rest of the world. By April of 2020, Wuhan had returned to a state of normalcy, and schools across the country reopened. When Huoshenshan and Leishenshan closed their doors, Fangcang soon seemed to become a thing of the past.

Although there were local outbreaks of Covid-19 in China throughout 2020 and 2021, the Fangcang hospitals did not really return to the public spotlight until Xi’an saw cases spike in late 2021 and early 2022, with the city becoming the epicenter of the biggest Covid outbreak and lockdown since Wuhan.

By January of 2022, the city of Xi’an had started to construct large sites for isolation of people who tested positive for Covid-19, in addition to designated hospitals. Besides ‘Fangcang,’ these were also called ‘Centralized Isolation Points’ (集中隔离点).

As later explained by Dr. Wu Jinglei, director of Shanghai Municipal Health Commission, Fangcang hospitals can also be used as ‘Isolation Points.’ The two are the same but using ‘Isolation Point’ instead of ‘Fangcang Hospital’ emphasizes the need to also isolate and observe patients who are asymptomatic at these health locations, besides treating those with mild-to-moderate symptoms. Later on, these locations also started to be referred to as ‘Fangcang Isolation Points’ (方舱隔离点) or ‘Isolation Fangcang’ (隔离方舱).

One story that attracted major attention on Chinese social media and indicated changing perceptions of the Fangcang phenomenon was the midnight eviction of residents of the Xi’an Mingde 8 Yingli community (明德八英里小区) in Xi’an. Just after midnight on January 1st of 2022, residents received news that they would be transferred by buses, and quarantined away from their compound due to new infections in their proximity.

Residents voiced their concerns on social media about the incident, saying they were unsure of where they were heading, and that they were put in buses together for hours until being driven off to a remote Fangcang without proper supplies. The term ‘bèi lāzǒu’ (被拉走) was used, ‘being dragged away.’

Old people, young children, and pregnant women were among those being taken away for quarantine without being provided with the things they needed, and without any measures to protect them against the dangers of infection. An image of an old man with a walking cane standing in line to be taken away for quarantine went viral online as many worried about his wellbeing. He was seemingly all alone and did not seem to have any luggage or food supplies with him.

Seeing photos of old buildings without proper facilities being turned into Fangcang, many residents wondered what the point of this kind of isolation was. One popular post by a Weibo user nicknamed ‘In Between Memories’ from January 2nd of 2022 said:

“I don’t understand why negative-tested families should be dragged away for isolation? Isn’t isolation at home also isolation? The Fangcang hospitals were built to focus on treating the mildly ill, separately from the seriously ill. But nowadays, after discovering one positive case, Xi’an wants to pull away the entire neighborhood to a centralized quarantine with poor conditions – even if everyone has already been in home quarantine for over a week. Is this all just so that Xi’an can say it has zero infections while ignoring the scientific basis that many families tested negative multiple times? While disregarding the special needs of families with elderly, young, sick, disabled, and pregnant people? Before transferring people, you never provided them with a policy basis, nor was there any warning or reminder given to the citizens of Xi’an that you would implement [this policy] on the spot in the middle of the night. Now that everyone is at risk, perhaps some will support this, hoping that there can be zero cases within the community in a time frame of three days. But there are more residents who are only worried that the next one to be dragged away will be them. After all, we will be taken away even if we stay well at home and test negative ten times for the nucleic acid test, what about the elderly and our children, what about our pets? No one cares, they only care about their hard target to clear the city of Covid within three days.”

Within three weeks of lockdown, Xi’an was the first city to have so many patients admitted to Isolation Points: nearly 50,000 people were isolated at 443 different Fangcang quarantine locations across Xi’an (Southern Weekend 2022).

January 5 2022, a Fangcang or Isolation Point with over 1000 separate isolations rooms is constructed in Baqiao District of Xi’an (Image via Renmin Shijue).

The fears of being taken away to Fangcang hospitals and Isolation Points also became a reality for Shanghai residents after an unprecedented Covid-19 spike in the city, starting in March of 2022. As the city entered a phased lockdown, photos and videos of a local quarantine site where babies and small children were kept in isolation – separated from their parents – went viral on Chinese social media.1

Not long after, patients at Fangcang hospitals started posting on social media about their experiences, complaining that there was a lack of basic supplies, that they were not given the medicine they needed, and that vulnerable patients were left to their own devices without proper care.

As the Covid-19 cases continued to spike throughout March and April, videos also started surfacing showing chaotic scenes at some Fangcang sites in Shanghai where patients were fighting over supplies such as blankets, water, and food, some crying when they were unable to get anything but some bottles of water – or nothing at all.

The apparent disorganization at quarantine facilities from the city’s Pudong to Minhang Districts triggered discussions on Chinese social media about why asymptomatic patients were taken off to these ill-equipped centralized Fangcang locations at all and why they were not allowed to isolate at home instead.

Chaotic situation at a quarantine location in Shanghai’s Pudong in early April 2022 (video).

One Weibo user wrote in April 2022:

“They took us to an isolation site. If the conditions had just been a bit better, we’d be okay with it, but this is just unimaginable. These are the facts. Over 800 people have entered this facility since April 9, their ages varying from seventy or eighty years old to babies just a few months old. 1. Inside the factory building, there are plank beds without mattresses, there are no people to clean. 2. There is no supervisor, we need to fight over our food. 3. There are not enough supplies, not even enough toilet paper. 4. 80% of the toilets are clogged, there’s nobody to clean them. 5. There are no doctors and nobody to take care of patients with a fever. 6. There is no one to dispose of the garbage. 7. The weather’s hot, but there’s no place to shower or change clothes.”

Patients shared a photo of the toilets at one Pudong quarantine location (more here).

Stories also started coming out of patients being taken away to Isolation Points many days after they had first tested positive for Covid. By the time they were finally taken away for quarantine, they had recovered and tested negative for Covid-19, yet still had to go and stay together with patients testing positive.

To create more beds for patients, Shanghai opened China’s largest-ever Fangcang hospital on April 8 at the National Exhibition Convention Center. This Fangcang, built by the same people who had helped build Huoshenshan and Leishenshan in Wuhan, had a capacity of 50,000 beds for Covid-19 patients.

These bigger, modern, and central Fangcang locations are generally neat and orderly, providing regular meals and medicine, as well as offering various activities or even setting up classrooms for quarantined students.

But photos, footage, and online diaries posted on social media exposed the stark differences in living conditions between different Fangcang hospitals. By late April of 2022, patients staying at one Fangcang location in the city’s Putuo District – an office building converted into a makeshift hospital – complained about the crowded living conditions, the lack of washing rooms and showers, and the inadequate supply of food and drinking water. At other facilities, patients posted videos of water pouring into the building after heavy rain.

Wide-angle view of the Shanghai office buildings that have been converted to Fangcang hospitals (What’s on Weibo).

Inside the office converted into Fangcang, photo via Weibo.

From Wuhan in 2020 to Shanghai in 2022, the public perception of the Fangcang phenomenon in China changed dramatically. While it was initially seen as an effective, efficient, and celebrated response to the outbreak of Covid, many Shanghai-based residents, during the peak of the city’s Covid crisis, feared the Fangcang more than the virus itself, as stories about overcrowded, disorganized and unequipped facilities kept surfacing online.

 

THE FUTURE OF FANGCANG

 

By mid-May of 2022, after seeing over 60,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in total, Shanghai retired half of its Fangcang locations due to rapidly declining cases. Nevertheless, the restrictions to keep Covid under control are still stringent.

As Chinese leadership remains adamant on sticking with its zero-Covid strategy, state media emphasize the need to uphold the mandatory quarantine system as part of this public health policy, which basically means the country will not opt to ‘live with the virus’ but instead will continue to implement strict measures to eliminate a Covid outbreak as fast as possible once it emerges.

Fangcang are here to stay as long as China stays on its current zero-Covid path. The country’s top epidemiologist Liang Wannian (梁万年) maintains that patients need to be isolated at a centralized location because they can be easily monitored and treated that way, while also minimizing the risks of them spreading the virus to others in their household or community.

In preparation for potential future outbreaks, cities across China are building new Fangcang or are improving existing ones. Authorities are making sure that the country is ready to manage more local outbreaks, avoiding messy Fangcang scenes like the ones in Xi’an or Shanghai.

On May 13, China’s National Health Commission called on all provinces to build or renovate city-level Fangcang hospitals, and to make sure they are equipped with electricity, ventilation systems, medical appliances, toilets, and washing facilities.

The country-wide Fangcang preparation plan is now in full swing. In Zhengzhou, for example, construction workers are building a new Fangcang from the ground up. The city of Zhoukou recently issued a promo video on Weibo showing off their local brand-new Fangcang location with 356 private rooms equipped with air disinfection systems, private showers, and free Wi-Fi. Meanwhile, Shanghai even introduced its first Fangcang location for pets.

Zhengzhou’s new Fangcang, construction work in mid-May 2022 (Weibo via @顶端新闻).

When it was announced that China would withdraw as the 2023 Asian Cup host due to the pandemic, netizens joked that the stadiums constructed for the sports event could now be turned into Fangcang instead.

“The Fangcang will become a regular facility in the next few years,” some social media users commented. Others wrote: “This is good news. It’s better to be prepared for what’s coming,” and: “Better to prepare to build the Fangcang now than to prepare to build our future graves.”

Weibo user sharing photo from one Shanghai Fangcang (@路漫漫的碎碎念)

Generally, despite worries over a lack of medical care and supplies at facilities, many people do support the idea of their cities being prepared for an immediate Covid response once it’s necessary. “I don’t get why people are being negative about building new Fangcang,” one Weibo user from Hebei Province writes:

“People think that they should stay home if they get infected but want other people to quickly go away to a Fangcang hospital if they’re sick. Our little town is now also building a Fangcang, and I think it’s a good thing. Before, there were too many infections in the neighboring village, and they took them for isolation to the hotel in our city center and all stores in the vicinity had to close. (..) It was scary, people didn’t want to visit the center anymore. Now, they’re building a Fangcang at the town border, away from the people, and it’s a relief for all of us.”

Meanwhile, Fangcang patients keep sharing their journals online. “Today is day seven for me,” one Shanghai resident wrote on Weibo: “I finally had an egg for the first time here. I’ve been constipated all week (..) This morning, I heard I meet the conditions to be discharged [two negative tests in a row], but due to the lack of capacity I’m still waiting, and it might still take two or three more days before I get to go home.”

“It’s day twelve. I can’t wait until I’m released from ‘prison’,” one person wrote.

Kids playing inside a Shanghai Fangcang Isolation Point, pictured shared on Weibo.

“It’s my first night at the Fangcang,” one Weibo user writes in another online ‘Covid journal’: “There’s too much light and noise, and my dad and I took turns in waking up. Eventually, he decided to get up, thinking it was 5 am, until we discovered it was just past 2 am. I felt light-headed as I headed to the bathroom.”

One patient at another Shanghai Fangcang writes: “My stay at the Fangcang is better than I had expected. I am sleeping better than at home and don’t have to think about what I am going to eat. But there are many elderly people inside here, and I see them suffering. I’m not sure if this policy really helps them.” They also write: “I’d better record all of this. I think this is going to be an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

1 On April 6, 2022, Shanghai changed the policy and announced that parents can apply to accompany their children during central quarantine after signing an agreement, regardless of whether they’ve tested positive for the virus or not.

 

References (other sources linked to inside the text)

Chen, Simiao Chen, Zongjiu Zhang, Juntao Yang, Jian Wang, Xiaohui Zhai, Till Bärnighausen, Chen Wang. 2020. “Fangcang Shelter Hospitals: A Novel Concept for Responding to Public Health Emergencies.” The Lancet, April 2             https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30744-3/fulltext [May 12, 2022].

Fang, Dongpin, Shengjie Pan, Zaishang Li, Ting Yuan, Benran Jiang, Di Gan, Bai Sheng, Jing Han, Tao Wang, Zhongmin Liu. 2020. “Large-Scale Public Venues as Medical  Emergency Sites in Disasters: Lessons from COVID-19 and the Use of Fangcang Shelter Hospitals in Wuhan, China.” BMJ Global Health 5:  1-7.

Luo, Hanbin, Jiajing Liu, Chengqian Li, Ke Chen, Ming Zhang. 2020. “Ultra-Rapid Delivery of Specialty Field Hospitals To Combat COVID-19: Lessons Learned from the Leishenshan Hospital Project in Wuhan.” Automation in Construction 119 (103345):  1-10.

Southern Weekend 南方周末. 2022. “The Largest Centralized Quarantine: 49,678 People in  nearly One Month, What Has Xi’an Invested 最大规模集中隔离:近一月49678人,西安付出了什么” [In Chinese]. Sina News, January 13  https://news.sina.cn/2022-01-13/detail-ikyamrmz4934227.d.html [May 13].

Wang, Ke-Wei, Jie Gao, Xiao-Xiao Song, Jiang Huang, Hua Wang, Xiao-Long Wu, Qin-Fang Yuan, Xiao-Shan Li, Feng Cheng, Yang Cheng. 2020. “Fangcang Shelters Are a One  Health Approach for Responding to the Covid-19 Outbreak in Wuhan, China.” One Health 10 (100167): 1-6.

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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    Guest

    July 1, 2022 at 8:44 am

    I worked in hospitals, and even by Chinese standards these places have nothing in common with a hospital. They should be called what they are: prisons.

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China and Covid19

The “Final Round Players” of China’s Covid Outbreak

Those who still haven’t had Covid have made it to the “finals,” but it’s not always easy to stay positive about still testing negative.

Manya Koetse

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This Chinese Lunar New Year period, as millions of people are traveling across the country, Hangzhou Daily (杭州日报) posted a video on Weibo of a 13-year-old boy dressed in full protective clothing at the Hangzhou train station.

The young man told the reporter that he was on his way to visit his grandparents for the Chinese New Year. When asked why he was dressed in protective clothing from head to toe, he answered: “Because I haven’t had Covid yet.”

According to the video posted by Hangzhou Daily, the boy has made it to the “Final Rounds” (决赛圈) as he has managed to stay Covid-negative at a time when so many people have already been infected with Covid-19 (#挺进决赛圈的男孩穿防护服坐火车#).

Since China ‘optimized’ the last stringent measures of its ‘Zero Covid’ policy back in early December – including an end to mandatory mass testing, – a wave of Covid infections spread across the country. The number of infections and emergency department visits reportedly reached its peak in late December of 2022 and in early January of 2023.

According to Wu Zunyou (@吴尊友ChinaCDC), chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center of Disease Control and Prevention, 80 percent of China’s population has now been infected with Covid (“这一波疫情已经使得全国约80%的人感染过”).

As it is getting rarer to come across someone who has not had Covid yet, travelers dressed in full hazmat suits and protective gear are bound to stand out. “So many people on the train, and there are still two people in the crowd wearing protective clothing,” one Weibo user from Guangdong wrote. Others also post photos on social media of some of the few travelers still fully dressed in protective gear.

One blogger photographed a child wearing protective clothing at Chongqing West Station on Jan. 24, calling the protective attire “exaggerated,” and wondering how the child was supposed to go to the toilet.

Photo posted on Weibo by @杨品-光线摄影学院 on Jan 24., 2023.

Traveler wearing protective clothing at Hangzhou East Station, photo by @百鸣老屈.

Hangzhou Daily is not the only media outlet dubbing those who managed to stay negative “final round players” (决赛圈选手). In early January, Beijing Daily (北京日报​​​​) and People’s Daily (人民日报) also published a short article using the same phrase. In the article, the Beijing expert physician Dr. Li Dong (李侗) answered some questions about the so-called ‘finalists.’

According to Dr. Li Dong, some of the people who claim to have managed to stay ‘Covid free’ were never infected due to protective measures. But there are also those who may have actually had Covid-19 without realizing it, as they barely had any symptoms or were completely asymptomatic.

“Final round players, protect yourself!” one Weibo commenter writes: “Who else has managed to reach these finals?”

“As a ‘final player,’ I finally went out to eat and visit the shopping mall today. I’ll have to wait and see if I reach the championship level. If I haven’t caught [Covid], I can go on and lead a normal life; if I did catch it, I’ll need to wait a while, and will also be able to lead a normal life.”

Other persons who did not have Covid yet also share on social media that they went out for the first time during this Spring Festival period: “I cautiously went out and saw my first movie in 2023, Wandering Earth II, I picked a morning screening so that the cinema is not so crowded yet.”

Now that the Covid infections in China have peaked and the number of infected critically ill patients is quickly dropping, the fears over catching Covid are also seemingly fading among those who were not yet infected.

But some people who have not had Covid yet are still being careful, especially if it concerns elderly family members. It’s not always easy to stay positive about still testing negative – also for loved ones who did previously have Covid and want to protect their family.

One Fujian-based social media user writes: “I recovered from Covid and I’m spending the Spring Festival with three ‘final round players.’ We’ve been stuck inside the house for days. I’ve been looking at the lanterns and the lights in the neighborhood, watching them from the balcony, and I really wanted to go down and see.”

“Looking at WeChat Moments, all my friends are out traveling, but my family still hasn’t had Covid and we’re afraid to go out,” another netizen writes: “It’s sad to celebrate the New Year without going out. Guess we’re final-round players now, let’s hope it brings good things.”

Meanwhile, the group of ‘finalists’ is still shrinking. One Weibo user from Guangxi wrote: “I’ve left the finalist circle. It’s only been two days since I returned to my hometown and I’m already infected.”

By Manya Koetse 

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China and Covid19

Video Shows Real-Time “Departure” Information Board at Chinese Crematorium

From “cremation in process” to “cooling down,” the digital display shows the progress of the cremation to provide information to those waiting in the lobby. The crematorium ‘departure’ board strikes a chord with many.

Manya Koetse

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A video showing a live display screen announcing the names and status of the deceased at a Yunnan crematorium has been making its rounds on Chinese social media, from WeChat to Weibo, where one version of the video received over 1,7 million views.

Somewhat similar to a real-time platform departure display on train stations, the screen shows the waiting number of the deceased person, their name, gender, the name of the lounge/room (if any) for families, the name of the crematorium chamber, and the status of the cremation process. Below in the screen, it says “the final journey of a warm life” (温暖人生的最后旅程).

For example, the screen displays the names of a Mr. Chen and a Mr. Li; their bodies were in the process of being cremated (火化中), while other cremations were marked as “completed” (完成) or “cooling down” (降温中).

Through such a screen, located in the crematorium lobby, family members and loved ones can learn about the progress of the cremation of the deceased.

The video, recorded by a local on Jan. 7, received many comments. Among them, some people commented on the information board itself, while others simply expressed grief over those who died and the fragility of life. Many felt the display was confronting and it made them emotional.

“It makes me really sad that this how people’s lives end,” one commenter said, with another person replying that the display also shows you still need to wait in line even when you’re dead.

“I didn’t expect the screens [in the crematorium] to be like those in hospitals, where patients are waiting for their turn,” another Weibo user wrote. “It would be better if the names were hidden, like in the hospitals, to protect the privacy of the deceased,” another person replied.

Others shared their own experiences at funeral parlors also using such information screens.

Another ‘departure display’ at a Chinese crematorium, image shared by Weibo user.

“My grandfather passed away last September, and when we were at the undertaker’s, the display was also jumping from one name to the other and we could only comfort ourselves knowing that he was among those who lived a relatively long life.”

“Such a screen, it really makes me sad,” another commenter from Guangxi wrote, with others writing: “It’s distressing technology.”

Although the information screen at the crematorium is a novelty for many commenters, the phenomenon itself is not necessarily related to the Covid outbreak and the number of Covid-related deaths; some people share how they have seen them in crematoriums before, and funeral parlor businesses have used them to provide information to families since at least 2018.

According to an article published by Sohu News, more people – especially younger ones – have visited a funeral home for the first time in their lives recently due to the current Covid wave, also making it the first time for them to come across such a digital display.

The online video of such an information board has made an impact at a time when crematoriums are crowded and families report waiting for days to bury or cremate their loved ones, with especially a large number of elderly people dying due to Covid.

On Jan. 4, one social media user from Liaoning wrote:

I really suggest that the experts go to the crematoriums to take a look. There is no place to put the deceased, they’re parked outside in temporary containers, there’s no time left to hold a farewell ceremony and you can only directly cremate, and for those who were able to have a ceremony, they need to finish within ten minutes (..) At the funeral parlor’s big screen, there were eight names on every page, and there were ten pages for all the people in line that day, I stood there for half an hour and didn’t see the name of the person I was waiting for pop up anymore.”

As the video of the display in the crematorium travels around the internet, many commenters suggest that it is not necessarily the real-time ‘departure’ board itself that bothers them, but how it shows the harsh reality of death by listing the names of the deceased and their cremation status behind it. Perhaps it is the contrast between the technology of the digital display boards and the reality of the human vulnerability that it represents that strikes a chord with people.

One blogger who reposted the video on Jan. 13 wrote: “Life is short, cherish the present, let’s cherish what we have and love yourself, love your family, and love this world.” Among dozens of replies, some indicate that the video makes them feel uncomfortable.

Another commenter also wrote:

I just saw a video that showed an electronic display at a crematorium, rolling out the names of the deceased and the stage of the cremation. One name represents the ending of a life. And it just hit me, and my tears started flowing. I’m afraid of parting, I’m afraid of loss, I just want the people I love and who love me to stay by my side forever. I don’t want to leave. I’m afraid I’ll be alone one day, and that nobody will ever make me feel warm again.”

One person captured why the information board perhaps causes such unease: “The final moments that people still spent on this earth take place on the electronic screen in the memorial hall of the funeral home. Then, they are gone without a sound.”

 

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By Manya Koetse 
with contributions by Zilan Qian

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