For the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic began, people in China can travel freely for Lunar New Year, the country’s most important holiday. The annual ritual of family reunion usually involves billions of trips, but those were sharply curtailed over the past three years as the government urged people to “celebrate where you are” to avoid spreading the virus. The abrupt lifting of the country’s strict Covid Zero policy at the end of 2022 has already led to a huge wave of new infections. The question now is how much of an impact the massive migration will have on the outbreak — as well as the already fragile economy.
1. What’s Lunar New Year?
Also known as Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival, it marks the beginning of the Chinese lunar calendar, and is seen as celebrating values like unity and family ties. By law, people in China get seven days off beginning New Year’s Eve, which falls on Jan. 21 this year. Traditionally, the celebrations span 16 days, from a family feast on New Year’s Eve through the Lantern Festival on Day 15. Many migrant workers seize what’s often their only chance in the year to return home, and many of the country’s urban elites also make their way back to small towns and villages. Before the pandemic, the annual event was considered the world’s biggest human migration.
2. What will travel look like this year?
It’s expected to be no-holds barred as the government has jettisoned travel curbs: No more testing to board trains, planes, ferries or shuttle buses for domestic travel; no more quarantine for inbound travelers. Officials estimate the number of trips over the holiday period will hit 2.1 billion — double that of last year, but still just 70% of the level seen in 2019. (The travel rush — known as Chunyun in Chinese, or spring transport — covers 40 days around the Lunar New Year; some 34.7 million domestic trips were made on the first day this year, Jan. 7.) Previously, when travel was officially discouraged, many people stayed put, which created tremendous pent-up demand for homecomings. This year is expected to see not only people swarming out of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, but also the Chinese diaspora rushing in from near and far. Hong Kong set a daily quota of 60,000 people to travel to the mainland, which was then raised for land crossings. (In comparison, AAA estimated 113 million people in the US traveled from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2, closing in on pre-pandemic numbers.)
3. How will this impact Covid spread in China?
Xu Chengguang, the vice transport minister, put it bluntly: this will be a New Year’s travel rush fraught with uncertainty, complexity and challenges. China’s abrupt ditching of strict Covid controls in December fueled a surge of infections in major cities, prompting people to stay home as they fell ill or feared becoming infected. Almost 60,000 people died from Covid-related causes between Dec. 8 and Jan. 12, and more than 12,000 between Jan. 13-19, according to health officials. While that’s an exponential jump from the previous official tally, experts estimate the true figure is likely in the hundreds of thousands. China’s chief epidemiologist, Wu Zunyou, suggested on Jan. 21 that more than 1.1 billion people had been infected since virus controls were abruptly dismantled late last year. The frenetic travel will give the highly contagious omicron variant another boost across the vast country of 1.4 billion. Rural China is bracing for a tsunami of infections at its understaffed and under-resourced hospitals and clinics. Many are already struggling with a sudden spike in febrile patients and pneumonia cases among the elderly.
4. What is the government doing?
Transport authorities are adding more flights and transport options to ferry not just people but also medical supplies, grains and fuel to handle expected higher demand ahead. The country’s vast rail network has boosted its passenger capacity by 11% from 2019 levels. The government also has made a plea to migrant workers and students to delay their trip back home if they are infected. It also asked villagers and farmers to reduce gatherings and wear masks when visiting elderly relatives and to practice good hygiene. Neighbors should also look after each other in this difficult time, sharing medicines and antiseptics or helping with groceries and sending the sick to hospitals. China’s National Health Commission has also asked larger hospitals in cities to help out rural clinics and called for strengthening the mechanisms to transfer severely ill patients in rural areas to intensive care at higher-level medical institutions. It also pledged to redirect more medical supplies to rural areas and urged people to get vaccinated.
5. What does this mean for tourism?
Domestic leisure travel is first in line to get a boost, as people recovering from a bout of Covid are looking to ski down snow-capped mountains in northern China and bathe in the sunshine down south in Hainan, known as China’s Hawaii, and shop at the island’s duty-free stores. The Lunar New Year has traditionally been a peak season for outbound travel as well, but the flow of Chinese tourists — previously a $280 billion spending force in hotspots from Paris to Tokyo — will take months if not years to recover to pre-pandemic levels. Numerous countries have implemented testing requirements on travelers from China after infections surged, and airlines have been reluctant to immediately make major changes to their flight schedules, meaning capacity remains tight and prices high.
6. And the broader economy?
Consumption was a main drag on the economy last year as shops and restaurants were shut repeatedly and travel was restricted due to Covid outbreaks and lockdowns. Chinese households also cut back on spending to save more amid soaring unemployment and a gloomy income outlook. Now that the country has abruptly dropped the Covid-Zero strategy and started reopening its borders, economists broadly expect consumption to rebound robustly later this year after infections peak, helped by a low comparison base but also as pent-up demand is unleashed and economic activity picks up. Chinese leaders have made boosting domestic demand a top priority this year, as geopolitical tensions remain while concerns rise that the global economy could enter recession. Some government-linked analysts have called on the authorities to provide cash handouts to consumers like what the US and other countries did to spur spending, while others argue more favorable policies should be given to small businesses and the property sector to preserve jobs.
7. What’s this year’s animal sign?
It’s the year of the rabbit. While normally considered a tame and tender animal, this year’s commemorative stamp issued by China Post has stirred up controversy, with some people saying the rabbit looks crazed or worse.
–With assistance from Michelle Fay Cortez.
(Updates death toll in question 3)
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