People in face masks observe three minutes of silence in Beijing, on a national day of mourning for the thousands of patients and medical workers killed by the coronavirus in China.

Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images


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Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images

People in face masks observe three minutes of silence in Beijing, on a national day of mourning for the thousands of patients and medical workers killed by the coronavirus in China.

Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images

For three minutes on Saturday, people across China stopped what they had been doing. In public spaces in major cities, residents clad in masks, together but physically separate, bowed their heads and paid respects to the thousands of neighbors and fellow Chinese nationals — friends, family, patients and medical workers — who are no longer with them.

As they stood in silence, air raid sirens and vehicle horns wailed their lament.

The country of some 1.3 billion people observed the minutes of silence as part of a national day of mourning Saturday, honoring the more than 3,300 people killed by COVID-19 in China since the coronavirus was discovered there late last year. There have been more than 1.1 million confirmed cases of the virus worldwide, more than 60,000 of which have ended in the patient’s death.

President Xi Jinping led the gesture at a ceremony in Beijing, dressed in black and surrounded by the most prominent members of the Chinese Communist Party. Flags flew at half-mast and entertainment was also suspended throughout the country.

In covering the day’s events, news outlets in China, including the state-run Xinhua and China Daily, reduced the palettes of their home pages to black and white. Many users on social media did the same with their profiles.

The day of mourning dovetailed with this year’s Qingming, an annual holiday in China dedicated to returning to the grave sites of loved ones and cleaning their tombs. It’s not the first time the national festival has been partly coopted toward memorializing a particular catastrophe, as Chinese nationals have taken the opportunity presented by Qingming to grieve for victims of recent earthquakes and other disasters.

But with the pandemic preventing many people from being with their loved ones at their death, or gathering for proper funerals afterward, this year’s observance felt especially painful for many of the mourners who observed Saturday’s ceremony.

“I can’t count how many times I have cried, and I thought I had dried all my tears,” said one mourner, who told Al Jazeera she’s grieving for her mother who died by COVID-19. “But when the siren went off, I started to cry my heart out — I miss my mother dearly and I don’t know how I am going to live from now on.”