Commemorations took place at 10 a.m. in all major cities, but were particularly poignant in Wuhan, the industrial city where the virus was first detected in December.
Wuhan was placed under complete lockdown on Jan. 23 in an effort to stem the spread of the virus and has been lauded as a “heroic city” by the nation’s communist leadership for the sacrifices made by its 11 million citizens.
People have gradually been allowed to travel in and out of Wuhan under strict conditions. The quarantine in the city is to be formally lifted on Wednesday.
In Beijing, President Xi Jinping led other top officials, all dressed in black suits with white carnations, as they bowed before a flag at half-staff in the leadership compound of Zhongnanhai.
On Saturday, China reported one new confirmed case in Wuhan and 18 among people arriving from abroad, along with four new deaths, all in Wuhan. China now has recorded a total of 81,639 cases and 3,326 deaths, although those figures are generally considered to be understated because of a lack of testing and a reluctance to report the scale of the original outbreak.
China’s slow, cautious emergence from the global pandemic comes as the U.S. is struggling to deal with an outbreak that has taken more than 1,860 lives in New York City alone. Hard-hit European nations Italy, Spain and France are also seeing rising numbers of cases and deaths, although strict social distancing measures such as those adopted by China appear to be having an effect.
The State Council, China’s Cabinet, ordered that national flags be flown at half-staff around the country and at Chinese embassies and consulates abroad, and the suspension of all public recreational activities.
The horns of automobiles, trains and ships joined in what China's official Xinhua News Agency called a “wail in grief” for three minutes. China has held such moments of silence in the past, often to mark World War II-era atrocities by Japan, but rarely on a national scale.
The commemoration also comes on the traditional Qingming festival, when Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors. Officials have banned such observances this year to avoid large gatherings that might contribute to a feared second wave of infections.
More than 3,000 health care workers contracted COVID-19 and the government says 14 died of the disease. Among them was Dr. Li Wenliang, who was threatened with punishment by police after publicizing news of the outbreak but has since been listed among the national “martyrs.”
This story has been corrected to show that Saturday was the day of the Qingming festival.