China celebrates the Lunar New Year after ‘Zero Covid’ cautiously

Sheng Chun has not visited her parents in their mountain village in southern China for more than three years as China’s “Covid-free” restrictions make travel difficult. Then the country abandoned its strict rules about the pandemic and he decided to take a long-awaited trip.

With his son and wife, Mr. Sheng, 43, embarked on a two-week journey from Beijing, more than 1,000 miles long, past cultural sites such as villages and temples of the Ming Dynasty, and finally home celebrate the Lunar New Year. He hopes to drive his parents back to Beijing in the future.

“I want them to go out and have more fun,” he said. “They are in their 70s now and I have had a very busy time with work. I feel guilty for not really spending time with them.”

As the coronavirus spread beyond the central Chinese city of Wuhan in early 2020, local and provincial governments quickly instituted a lockdown of tens of millions of people. The past few years of the Lunar New Year have been quite quiet, many people do not want to travel because of fear of the virus or due to blockade, isolation or other strict rules.

This year, the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar has a different feel. It comes just weeks after the government, facing economic pressure and widespread public discontent, lifted strict Covid-19 restrictions. For many, the joy of finally seeing loved ones who are far away without the risk of lockdown comes with anxiety — especially the fear of spreading the virus to older loved ones. age in rural communities that are not medically equipped to handle them.

Hundreds of millions of people moved, packing into train and bus stations with suitcases and bags full of presents as they made their way home.

That tourist rush — in the pre-Covid era, typically the world’s largest annual exodus — was a source of public complaint. But on social media, people celebrate this year’s congestion as a sign of a return to normal, or at least a new normal.

Even as the virus continues to spread across the country, many people welcome that new phase. They point to announcements by some provincial and local governments that the current wave of cases in some cities has peaked as a sign that the worst may be over. It’s time to think about something other than Covid – such as multi-generational reunions, complete with parties and fireworks. For some, it’s an awkward time to introduce a new love interest to their family.

Wang Yanjie, 30, a product manager in Shanghai, had hoped to bring her two-year-old boyfriend back to his hometown in central China but was thwarted twice: the first time due to a two-month lockdown in spring 2022, and then the coronavirus outbreak in her home province in November.

Finally, Ms. Wang and her boyfriend took an early train to the northwest city of Bozhou from Shanghai’s Hongqiao station, then shared a car with other villagers to her hometown near Zhukou, Henan province. On the first night, she watched nervously as her parents and boyfriend talked about homemade noodles, steamed vegetables, and chicken feet. Then, to show their agreement, they asked when they could meet his parents.

“Everything went pretty smoothly,” Ms. Wang said, relieved. “They think my boyfriend is handsome, serious and polite.”

China expects holiday traffic to nearly double from the previous year, exceeding two billion passengers in a 40-day period starting in early January. And while the official rules on travel have been relaxed, the official language of deterrence has remained unchanged.

At a news conference on Monday, Li Yanming, the head of the department at Beijing Hospital, warned of the rising cases and urged people to take precautions. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a notice discouraging long-distance travel for people still recovering from the latest coronavirus outbreak. In early January, China’s Ministry of Transport urged travelers with symptoms to avoid traveling and gathering in large numbers.

Vice Minister of Transport Xu Chengguang told state media: “This year, the peak of tourism for the Lunar New Year coincides with the peak of the virus outbreak. “It was the most challenging spring festival in recent years.”

Much of that challenge will take place in China’s rural areas, where an increase in infections due in part to migrant workers returning to their home countries can make it difficult to network the care system. China’s sparse rural health.

In mid-December, a wave of corona virus swept through Jinzhong City, Shanxi Province, overloading the hospitals here. Long lines formed outside the village’s smaller clinics, and medical equipment such as beds and ventilators were exhausted. Dr. Guo Xiaohong, a doctor at a clinic in the city, said that since then, many people have recovered and her clinic visits have halved. But the New Year’s tourist rush brings with it the possibility of similar episodes elsewhere — or even again in Tan Trung.

“Experts say populations have achieved herd immunity, but how much resistance does this immunity confer against virus mutations?” Dr Guo said, and urged people not to go far or even visit relatives during the Lunar New Year.

Fear of another outbreak in the countryside also haunts Liu Han, a villager who recently returned to Xiangtan, 700 miles south of Jinzhong. His family, along with the rest of the village, contracted the virus from workers at a nearby processing plant for betel nut, a local Hunan specialty.

“We’ve been closed for so long – three years – you form some habits, don’t you? Now I was locked up to the point of fear. I fear it,” he said, referring to the virus.

Mr. Liu also sees the damage Covid has caused to the village, which is mainly composed of elderly people. Main roads were deserted, supermarkets and drugstores emptied by hoarding shoppers. His father, a restaurant owner, temporarily closed his restaurant because the employees were sick. Four villagers in their 70s and 90s have died in recent weeks, Mr. Liu said, adding that he dared not speculate on the cause.

Now, when friends and relatives go home for the holidays, Mr. Liu still feels insecure. “It was because we were open that I felt a lot of tension,” he said.

This Lunar New Year comes at the same time as the third anniversary of Wuhan’s blockade, a coincidence that is almost impossible to ignore for many Chinese.

“Wuhan has sacrificed a lot; No one should forget it, at least I won’t,” said 19-year-old Song Fei, a university student in Kunming, southern China. She said Wuhan is a “heroic” city, a city where people have paid dearly for the truth about the pandemic.

Last weekend, after completing about three-quarters of the way home, Mr. Sheng arrived in the city where the pandemic first broke out. There are few reminders of that time, he said, except for roadside propaganda slogans praising the heroism of Wuhan residents at the height of the pandemic.

Mr. Sheng said the atmosphere of panic that enveloped the city in 2020 “has gone”. “Everybody’s life has returned to normal.”

At a temple, Mr. Sheng joined a crowd of Wuhan residents to burn incense in front of the altar, praying for good luck in the coming year.

“For the past three years, I think this year is going to be the best year,” he said.

Olivia Wang Contributing research.


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