As China grapples with surging COVID-19 cases, emergency wards in small cities and towns southwest of the capital, Beijing, are overwhelmed.

Intensive care units (ICUs) are turning away ambulances, relatives of sick people are searching for open beds,

and patients are slumped on benches in hospital corridors and lying on floors for a lack of beds.

The towns and small cities in Baoding and Langfang prefectures, in central Hebei province, were the epicentre of one of China’s first outbreaks

after the state loosened coronavirus controls in November and December. For weeks, the region went quiet, as people fell ill and stayed home.

Many have now recovered. Today, markets are bustling, diners pack restaurants and cars are honking in snarling traffic, even as the virus is spreading in other parts of China.

In recent days, headlines in state media said the area is “starting to resume normal life”. But life in central Hebei’s emergency wards and crematoriums is anything but normal.

Even as the young go back to work and lines at fever clinics shrink, many of Hebei’s elderly are falling into critical condition.