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China celebrates Lunar New Year after ‘Covid zero’ with caution


Sheng Chun had not visited his parents in their southern Chinese mountain village for more than three years because China’s “zero Covid” restrictions made travel difficult. Then the country ditched its strict pandemic rules and decided to take a long-awaited road trip.

Along with his son and wife, Mr Sheng, 43, embarked on a two-week journey from Beijing that would cover more than 1,000 miles, passing cultural sites like a village and dynasty temples Ming, then finally home for the Lunar New Year. He hoped to bring his parents back to Beijing later.

“I want them to go out and have more fun,” he said. “They are now over 70 and for a while I was too busy working. I feel guilty for not having really spent time with them.

When the coronavirus spread widely outside China’s central city of Wuhan in early 2020, local and provincial governments moved quickly to lock down tens of millions of people. The past Lunar New Year has been muted affairs, with many being deterred from traveling for fear of the virus or by lockdowns, quarantines or other onerous rules.

This year, the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar has a different feel. It comes just weeks after the government, facing economic pressures and widespread public discontent, lifted its strict Covid-19 restrictions. For many people, the joy of finally seeing distant loved ones without risking getting caught in a lockdown is mixed with anxiety – in particular, the fear of passing the virus on to older relatives in medically unequipped rural communities. to manage it.

Hundreds of millions of people have been on the move, packing into train stations and bus terminals with stuffed suitcases and bags full of goodies as they return home.

This travel rush – in pre-Covid times usually the largest annual migration in the world – was once a source of public complaints. But on social media, people celebrated this year’s congestion as a sign of a return to normal, or at least a new normal.

Even though the virus continued to spread across the country, many welcomed this new phase. They pointed to announcements by some provincial and local governments that the current wave of cases in some cities had peaked as a sign that for now, the worst may be over. It was time to think about something other than Covid – like a multi-generational reunion, complete with feasts and fireworks. For some people, it was time for that awkward moment to introduce a new love interest into their family.

Wang Yanjie, 30, a product manager in Shanghai, had hoped to bring her boyfriend of two years to her home village in central China, but was thwarted twice: first by a two-month lockdown in the spring 2022, and later, by a coronavirus outbreak in his home province in November.

Finally, Ms. Wang and her boyfriend took an early train to the northwest city of Bozhou from Shanghai Hongqiao Station, then carpooled with other residents to her hometown near of Zhoukou in Henan province. On the first evening, she nervously watched her parents and her boyfriend discuss handmade noodles, steamed vegetables and chicken feet. Then, in approval, they asked when they could meet his parents.

“It went pretty well,” Ms. Wang said with relief. “They thought my boyfriend was handsome, serious and well-mannered.”

China expects holiday traffic to nearly double from a year earlier, topping two billion passenger trips in the 40-day period starting in early January. And while the formal rules on travel have relaxed, the official warning language is unchanged.

At a press conference on Monday, Li Yanming, ward chief at Beijing Hospital, warned of rising cases and urged citizens to take precautions. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued an advisory discouraging long-distance travel for those still recovering from the latest wave of coronavirus outbreaks. In early January, China’s transport ministry urged symptomatic travelers to avoid travel and large gatherings.

“This year, the peak of Lunar New Year travel coincides with the peak of the virus wave,” Xu Chengguang, vice minister of transport, told state media. “This is the most difficult spring festival in recent years.”

Much of that challenge will unfold in China’s countryside, where a surge in cases partly triggered by migrant workers returning to their home villages could hamper the sparse network of underfunded rural healthcare systems in China.

In mid-December, a wave of coronavirus that ravaged the city of Jinzhong in Shanxi province overloaded its hospitals. Long queues formed outside small village clinics and medical equipment like beds and ventilators ran out. Dr Guo Xiaohong, a doctor at a clinic in the city, said many had recovered since then and visits to his clinic had halved. But the New Year’s travel rush carries the possibility of similar episodes elsewhere – or even in Jinzhong.

“Experts say that the population has achieved herd immunity, but how much resistance does this immunity produce against the virus mutating?” said Dr Guo, who also urged people not to travel far or even visit relatives during the Lunar New Year.

Worries about another rural outbreak also lingered in the mind of Liu Han, a villager who had recently returned to Xiangtan, 700 miles south of Jinzhong. His family, along with the rest of the village, caught the virus from workers at a nearby betel nut factory, a local Hunan delicacy.

“We’ve been closed for so long – three years – you’re building habits, right? I’ve been locked up to the point of being scared now. I’m afraid of it,” he said, referring to the virus.

Mr Liu also saw the toll Covid had taken on the village, which was mostly made up of elderly people. The main thoroughfares were quiet, and the shelves of supermarkets and pharmacies had been emptied of people stocking up. His father, a restaurateur, had temporarily closed his restaurant due to illness among the staff. Four villagers between the ages of 70 and 90 have died in recent weeks, Liu said, adding he dared not speculate on the cause.

Now, as friends and relatives return home for the holidays, Mr. Liu remains uneasy. “It’s precisely because we opened up that I feel so tense,” he said.

This Lunar New Year comes at the same time as the third anniversary of lockdowns in Wuhan, a coincidence virtually impossible for many Chinese to ignore.

“Wuhan made such a big sacrifice; no one should forget it, at least I won’t,” said Song Fei, 19, a student in Kunming, southern China. Wuhan was a “heroic” city, she said, a city in which people paid a high price to get the truth about the pandemic out.

Last weekend, about three-quarters of the way home, Mr. Sheng arrived in the city where the pandemic first emerged. Few reminders of that time remained, he said, except for roadside propaganda slogans praising the heroism of Wuhan residents at the height of the pandemic.

The atmosphere of panic that gripped the city in 2020 “was gone”, Sheng said. “Everyone’s life has returned to normal.”

At one temple, Mr Sheng joined a crowd of Wuhan residents lighting incense at the altar, praying for good fortune in the coming year.

“Of the last three years, I think this year will be the best,” he said.

Olivia Wang contributed to the research.

nytimes Gt

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