My Mother Just Died of COVID in Wuhan

She was one of millions left virtually defenseless by China’s sudden abandonment of its failing zero-COVID policy.

A photomontage of images of Jiwei Xiao’s mother
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Photos Courtesy of Jiwei Xiao; Getty

My mother just died of COVID in Wuhan, China.

When I got the news, I was in the United States, thousands of miles and 13 time zones away. It was the end of a tough semester teaching modern Chinese literature to American students. I had just finished grading all of their final papers. I was in a cheerful mood, washing dishes, when my phone rang.

“Mom is gone! Dead!” my sister said, sobbing. She doesn’t live in China either; she was calling me from Italy, where she’d received the news. Only then did I see several missed WeChat calls from my mother’s caregiver, Yanli, in Wuhan.

Mom died on the winter solstice.

Was it noon or midnight over there in China? I couldn’t tell; I was dizzy. Icy rain was splashing against the windows all around me. The wind was howling. My mother had died.

Only three hours earlier, I had seen her alive on a video call. She was on her side, looking sleepy and quite peaceful. Yanli had held the cellphone so close to her face that I almost felt as though I could touch it. Mom was mumbling something, but her voice was weak and husky. I’d asked Yanli what Mom was saying. She couldn’t tell either.

Yanli had then switched the screen over to herself to give an update. Mom’s fever had been brought down, but she was still phlegmy. We should let her rest, and call the next day.

We’d been worried earlier that week when we learned that Yanli had COVID. We’d asked her to please keep her distance from Mom. I got scared when she touched Mom’s face to adjust her mask. “Don’t touch her!” I yelled. But we knew that there was no way Yanli could quarantine—Mom relied on her 24-hour home care. Nor was it possible to replace Yanli, especially when so many people on the university campus where my mother’s apartment was, and all over the city, were getting COVID.

Mom was entirely defenseless. She was one of the vulnerable elderly whom the government had cited as one of the main reasons for imposing its zero-COVID restrictions. Yet each time we asked her if she’d gotten vaccinated, Mom said that she had been discouraged by people from her old workplace at the university. They told her the vaccine was risky for her because of her age and fragile health—not enough was known, they said, about the effects of the vaccine on older people.

My sister and I were outraged and in disbelief about this. After all, senior citizens had been the first in line to receive the mRNA vaccines in the United States. Another obstacle that hindered Mom from getting the shots was her immobility. When she finally heeded our advice and asked if she could get the vaccine at home, she was flatly turned down. But then, like many others, Mom also thought that because she wasn’t going anywhere, she was safe at home.

Nobody could have expected the abrupt abandonment of the zero-COVID policy. Overnight, the government gave up its fight against the spread of the virus. The entire COVID-control-and-elimination system that had micromanaged people’s daily life, keeping millions under lockdowns for weeks, even months, and corralling reluctant citizens into quarantine centers, just melted away. The government has offered no rationale for the policy’s sudden end—and probably never will. But leading up to the sudden policy U-turn, rising social discontent, compounded by a worsening economy, was creating perhaps the greatest political risk the Communist Party had faced since the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

No efforts toward a measured transition seem to have been attempted, and many Chinese citizens were caught off guard. For nearly three years, they had put up with frequent testing and harsh quarantine measures. Now left to fend themselves, people scrambled to buy anti-fever medicines, which were in short supply.

Winter was also bound to be the worst season for the end of restrictions, especially for the elderly, who became the first casualties of this radical, poorly planned policy shift. The vaccination rate for older citizens is alarmingly low: Among people over 80, the age group my mother belonged to, only 40 percent have had three shots, The Economist reported this month. With so much money invested in the containment-based approach—especially in COVID-testing services and mass-surveillance technology—the opportunity to strengthen China’s health-care system against the pandemic and prepare better for the reopening was squandered.

Now, in Wuhan—where it all began, and where authorities first imposed a city-wide lockdown to control the virus’s spread—COVID was running rampant. And it claimed our mother.

Besides the fever and the phlegm, Mom didn’t show other symptoms. But the glimpses we got on the phone didn’t give us a full picture of her condition. Yanli was not a trained nurse. At one point, we considered sending Mom to the hospital but decided against it—news reports and online chatter about hospitals and emergency services being swamped with patients were worrisome. With Mom’s fever apparently under control, we thought it would be better to wait and monitor her situation.

My sister and I are tortured by the thought that this might have been the wrong decision: Maybe immediate hospitalization could have saved her life. That guilt and grief subsided only a little when my friends showed me the statistics on the rate of COVID fatalities for octogenarians and nonagenarians. Not that Chinese statistics can even be trusted—according to her official death certificate, Mom didn’t die of COVID. When I saw the generic word cusi, meaning “sudden death,” in the box indicating cause of death, I was furious.

Over a video call, I had Yanli take me to the local hospital to inquire about this “mistake.” Yanli was rebuffed by a doctor in the office that had issued the death certificate. He’d had nothing to do with it, he said; we’d have to find his colleague who’d filled out the form. But that other doctor was now working in a different hospital.

This is one reason the official numbers for new COVID cases remain low: Almost all of these elderly people have some health issue or another, so in the murky area between COVID as a direct cause of death for diagnosed patients and COVID as a triggering event for the sudden death of many of them, there is a lot of ambiguity for authorities to exploit. According to The New York Times, “Officials have explained that China counts Covid deaths only if the virus was the direct cause of a respiratory failure—a definition the World Health Organization said would lead to a vast underestimate.”

Mom was never easy to live with and take care of. She was demanding, and we had a pretty high turnover of caregivers. But as taxed as they were, they obliged her fussiness about cleanliness with patience and good humor. Even though she was sick, she insisted that Yanli help her take a shower on the morning of the day she died. My mother had beautiful, velvety skin when she was younger, and she kept her looks well into old age. She was a woman who tried to look her best every day, even if she no longer had friends visiting her.

Now her face had assumed the mask of death: grim, gaunt, lifeless. Her skin had yellowed around her eyes. Her mouth was open, her dentures missing. Her hair was still mainly black, but it was thin, unkempt.

She was not my mother. Mom had left.

She died at the beginning of China’s reopening. She became just another numbered corpse to be cremated.

The next day, men in white hazmat suits sent by the funeral parlor arrived. The camera of my mother’s cellphone in Yanli’s hand became shaky as she walked around, leading the way. Under the harsh fluorescent light, what was caught on the phone was eerily distant, impersonal, like a candid scene in a documentary. I gazed on, holding my breath, my eyes unblinking. Fear and anxiety seized me. Mom’s body looked so puny sheathed in the garish traditional suit that the “one-stop funeral service” had sold us at an exorbitant price; we’d had little choice.

Yanli was the one who took care of the documents and brought my mother’s ashes back from the morgue. Mom had once asked me to bring her ashes from China to the U.S. so that she could stay near me and my sister.

The Chinese often use the expression shengli sibie—“a departure that feels like a parting by death”—to describe the greatest sorrow of separation in life. That was what I felt when I bade farewell to my mother the last time I was able to visit China, in the summer of 2019. Shengli sibie can also be rendered more directly as “being forever parted when alive and forever separated when dead.” Now I live with both meanings.