February 2, 2023

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China is celebrating the post-zero Covid Lunar New Year with caution

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

With his son and wife, Mr. Sheng, 43, embarked on a two-week trip from Beijing that would cover more than 1,000 miles, passing through cultural sites such as a Ming Dynasty village and temples, and finally home for the Lunar New Year. He hoped to be able to drive his parents back to Beijing later.

“I want them to go out and have more fun,” he said. “They’re in their 70s now and for a while I was too busy with work. I feel guilty that I didn’t really spend time with them.”

As the coronavirus spread far beyond the central Chinese city of Wuhan in early 2020, local and provincial governments acted swiftly to lock down tens of millions. The last Lunar New Years have been muted affairs, with many discouraged from traveling due to fears of the virus or lockdowns, quarantines or other onerous rules.

This year, the most important holiday in China’s calendar has a different atmosphere. It comes just weeks after the government lifted its tough Covid-19 restrictions amid economic pressures and widespread public discontent. For many people, the joy of finally seeing loved ones far away without the risk of being locked down comes with fear – particularly fear of spreading the virus to older relatives in rural communities who are not medically equipped to carry it are.

Hundreds of millions of people were heading home, filling train and bus stations with overstuffed suitcases and bags full of gifts.

This travel rush — typically the largest annual migration in the world in pre-Covid times — used to be a source of public complaints. But on social media, people celebrated this year’s traffic jam as a sign of a return to normal, or at least a new normal.

Even as 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 has peaked in some cities as a sign the worst may be over for now. It was time to think about something other than Covid – like multi-generational reunions with feasts and fireworks. For some people, it was time for that awkward moment of introducing their families to a new love interest.

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 spring 2022 and later by a coronavirus outbreak in her home province in November.

The Chinese government shelved its restrictive “zero Covid” policy, which had sparked mass protests that posed a rare challenge to Communist Party leadership.

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

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

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

At a press conference on Monday, Li Yanming, a department head at Beijing Hospital, warned of rising cases and urged citizens to take precautions. The China Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a notice advising against long-distance travel for those still recovering from the recent wave of coronavirus outbreaks. In early January, China’s Ministry of Transport urged symptomatic travelers to avoid travel and large gatherings.

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

Much of this challenge will play out in China’s rural areas, where a surge in cases, fueled in part by migrant workers returning to their home villages, could affect China’s sparse network of underfunded rural health systems.

In mid-December, a wave of coronavirus that swept through Jinzhong city in Shanxi province overwhelmed hospitals. Long queues formed outside smaller village clinics, and medical equipment such as beds and ventilators were running out. dr Guo Xiaohong, a doctor at a clinic in the city, said many have since recovered and visits to her clinic have dropped by half. But the New Year’s travel rush brings with it the possibility of similar episodes elsewhere – or even in Jinzhong again.

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

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

“We’ve been closed for so long – three years – you’re developing some habits, right? I’m now locked in to the point of fear. 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 supermarkets and pharmacies had emptied their shelves as people stocked up. His father, a restaurant owner, had temporarily closed his restaurant due to staff illness. Four villagers in their 70s and 90s have died in recent weeks, Mr. Liu said, adding that he dared not speculate as to the cause.

Now, as friends and relatives come home for the holiday, Mr. Liu remains uneasy. “Just because we’ve opened up, I feel so tense,” he said.

This lunar new year falls at the same time as the third anniversary of the lockdowns in Wuhan, a coincidence many Chinese find hard to ignore.

“Wuhan made such a great sacrifice; no one should forget it, at least not me,” said Song Fei, 19, a college student in Kunming, south China. Wuhan is a “heroic” city, she said, a city where people paid a heavy price for publishing the truth about the pandemic.

Last weekend, having completed about three quarters of his road trip back home, Mr. Sheng arrived in the city where the pandemic first emerged. Few memories remain of that period, he said, other than 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,” Mr Sheng said. “Everyone’s life has returned to normal.”

At a temple, Mr. Sheng joined a group of Wuhan residents who lit incense at the altar and prayed for the coming year.

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

Olivia Wang contributed to the research.