Things took a turn for the better in 2021 when they moved into a retirement community with staff available to assist them. But by late 2022, China’s anti-Covid strategy was being strained by public fatigue and the highly transmissible omicron variant, and the government announced its end. Suddenly, life in China went from zero-Covid to almost zero restrictions, and not everyone was ready.

“I think the zero-COVID policy really made people numb to how dangerous this virus is,” said the couple’s daughter, who lives on the East Coast and is a US citizen.

Retirement community staff members were still testing residents on a regular basis, going door-to-door. The mother’s PCR test on December 23 came back positive, but the family was not informed, the daughter said. If she had been, she said, she would have been told to immediately take the antiviral drug Paxlovid that had been sent to her from abroad.

On Christmas morning in China, the mother suddenly fell unconscious and an ambulance was called. A rapid test administered by paramedics came back positive and she was taken to the hospital where her condition rapidly deteriorated as her daughter and other family members watched the video.

He died about 16 hours after the positive rapid test.

“She never opened her eyes to see us,” the daughter said. «She didn’t tell us anything.»

The mother’s death certificate, the daughter said, lists her cause of death as «community-transmitted pneumonia,» followed by a question mark in parentheses. She had tested positive again at the hospital, «but even on her death certificate there is no mention of Covid,» the daughter said.

Cremation facilities in the city and nearby smaller towns were full, the daughter said, and the family had to use connections to find one three hours away. The family’s experience is consistent with satellite imagery at the time showing increased activity at Chinese crematoriums and funeral homes.

Days later, the daughter met her father in another Asian country before taking him back to the US, without his wife for more than 60 years.

“My 90-year-old dad was crying,” he said. “He couldn’t believe mom passed away like this. Mom didn’t say a last word to him either.»