China to pause in memory of virus victims and 'martyrs'

Wuhan (China) (AFP) –


China will come to a standstill on Saturday to mourn patients and medical staff killed by the coronavirus, as the world's most populous country observes a nationwide three-minute silence.

At 10 am (0200 GMT), citizens will pause, cars, trains and ships will sound their horns, and air-raid sirens will wail in memory of the more than 3,000 lives claimed by the virus in China.

Flags will fly at half-mast across the country and at embassies and consulates overseas, while public events and entertainment will stop.

Beijing has said the observance is a chance to mourn virus "martyrs" -- an honorific title bestowed by the government this week on 14 medical workers who died fighting the outbreak.

They include Li Wenliang, a doctor and whistle-blower in the epicentre city of Wuhan who was 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 as well as anger at the government's handling of the crisis.

The ruling Communist Party has sought to direct criticism over allegations of a bungled initial response towards local authorities in Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, who are accused of downplaying the severity of the virus, possibly contributing to its spread.

A central government investigation into Li's death concluded he was "inappropriately" punished by Wuhan police.

Despite drastic measures to lock down Hubei in late January, the epidemic has spiralled into a global pandemic with more than one million cases.

Some restrictions in Hubei have been eased in recent weeks after the officially stated number of new infections in China dropped to near zero.

Saturday's commemoration coincides with the annual Qing Ming holiday -- the "tomb sweeping" festival -- when Chinese people visit the graves of relatives and leave offerings in remembrance.

Although China claims to have curbed the spread of the virus, some restrictions were tightened again this week to prevent a second wave of infections.

Authorities have discouraged visits to cemeteries to mark the festival.

"We advocate people staying home and having small-scale memorials at home to remember the dead," Fan Yu, an official with China's department of social affairs, said this week.

Cemeteries across China are offering a "cloud tomb-sweeping" service in which 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.