The intensity of the outbreak has taken her and many others by surprise.

“It is much more serious than I expected, much more serious,” the woman said. “Especially for older people, whether or not they have had some diseases before, the virus could end their lives.”

The hospital here is so busy that street vendors have set up shop outside to take advantage of the surge in visitors after nearly two years of surviving with hardly any business.

“Most of my clients are the families of the patients and the patients themselves, or the nurses within the hospital,” said one provider.

Satellite images taken in December and January by Colorado-based space technology company Maxar showed a large number of cars as well as new construction at crematoriums in cities across mainland China, providing a glimpse of the human cost of the outbreak.

At a funeral in Shanghai, a woman leaving the crematorium shouted, “Why did you leave us so soon? Now I am alone in the world.»

China on Thursday repeated complaints about Western media coverage of its outbreak, with an editorial in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, criticizing the reports in some unnamed outlets as «completely biased hype, slander and political manipulation with ulterior motives.

He said life was returning to normal in places where cases had peaked, as residents of some major cities also told NBC News.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Wednesday that «covid zero» had been the «right option» for China for most of the pandemic, but that the government’s response had entered a «new phase.»

“Difficult challenges remain, but the light of hope is right in front of us,” he said in a virtual meeting with medical staff at a hospital in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, according to state media.

Xi said he was particularly concerned for those living in rural areas as large numbers of people travel to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, which officially kicks off on Sunday. Rural areas in China often have far fewer medical resources than cities.

Also on Wednesday, Chinese authorities announced a crackdown on “rumours” about the pandemic during the holidays, calling it a “Spring Festival online environment improvement” program.

Despite strict censorship, stories and complaints about the virus outbreak have spread widely on Chinese social media, challenging the official narrative that it is under control. Among other issues, the Cyberspace Administration of China said over the next month that it would crack down on the «fabrication of patient experiences» and the promotion of fake virus treatments to «prevent gloomy feelings» during the Lunar New Year.