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2021-01-08 11:00:32

In any other year, the coming weeks would see what is often dubbed the world’s biggest human migration: hundreds of millions of people traveling across China for Spring Festival, the first day of the lunar calendar that in 2021 falls on Feb. 12.

But this year, Chinese health experts and government officials are urging people to reduce travel, or at least avoid peak days and large groups.

They’re afraid the sheer movement of people during the Lunar New Year period could set back the country’s hard-earned success in controlling COVID-19, especially now that China is in the middle of one of its worst outbreaks since the coronavirus initially emerged roughly one year ago.

Though most places in China haven’t registered new cases for months, a handful of localities face developing COVID-19 clusters. Shijiazhuang, the capital of northern China’s Hebei province, announced Thursday that people were forbidden from leaving the city after it registered more than 200 cases over the past week.

The circumstances we are facing appear to be grim.

“With more movement of people in the country and sporadic cases popping up, the circumstances we are facing appear to be grim,” Shen Yinzhong, an infectious disease expert at Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center, told Sixth Tone. “Of course we want to enjoy the New Year celebration, but we also need to travel in a sensible and orderly way.”

This year, the Spring Festival travel season, or chunyun, roughly spans from late January to early March. Commonly, this 40-day period sees those who live outside of their hometowns — students, white-collar workers, and the hundreds of millions of blue-collar migrant workers — traveling across the country to reunite with their families and friends. Nearly everyone is given a week of holiday, and many people take vacation trips to make use of the rare time off.

Data from the Ministry of Transport shows that people in China make about 3 billion trips during chunyun every year. For comparison, last month’s holiday season saw an estimated 84 million people hitting the road in the U.S., where there are already local spikes in cases.

“I expect the risks involved in chunyun to be greater than those in holiday travels around Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Yang Liu, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told Sixth Tone. She explained that chunyun lasts longer, involves more individuals, and relies more on public transportation such as trains, buses, and planes.

Chinese public health experts say it’s unnecessary to halt travel in the country completely, but social distancing and other conventional infection prevention methods will need to be applied. “We don’t really have a drug for the disease, and most people aren’t vaccinated yet,” Zhan Siyan, an epidemiologist from Peking University, told Sixth Tone.

Tourists walk out of Beijing Railway Station in Beijing, Dec. 30, 2020. Wang Zicheng/IC

Tourists walk out of Beijing Railway Station in Beijing, Dec. 30, 2020. Wang Zicheng/IC

The Spring Festival period is a time for large gatherings, which only increase the risk of infection and should be avoided, she said. A recent string of COVID-19 infections in Hebei was linked to a wedding, an event commonly scheduled around the Lunar New Year.

Last year, Spring Festival coincided with the emergence of the then-mysterious virus in central city Wuhan. An estimated 5 million people had already left the city before the authorities implemented a lockdown on Jan. 23. It came too late to avoid infections all over China.

In October, those in China enjoyed an eight-day holiday in celebration of National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival and took over 600 million trips without them leading to any outbreaks. But chunyun is a different story, Zhan said.

Spring Festival takes place in winter, a peak season for respiratory pathogens to spread. “People are often gathered indoors where ventilation wouldn’t be as good as in summer,” she said. “The risk (of getting infected) is high if there’s an asymptomatic carrier in the same room.”

I expect the risks involved in 'chunyun' to be greater than those in holiday travels around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Moreover, dozens of COVID-19 cases linked to cold chain logistics workers have shown that low temperatures allow the coronavirus to survive on surfaces and spread to humans. “We can’t rule out the possibility that viruses on doorknobs are still infectious, for example, especially in northern China where the weather is really cold,” Zhan said.

To control and avoid flare-ups, the country’s COVID-19 prevention task force issued a warning last week about the risks of outbreaks during the holiday season. The organization suggested limiting all gatherings to 10 people or fewer and encouraging workers to spend the holidays in the cities where they work instead of returning to their hometowns.

Local officials have also announced a variety of measures. Chen Bei, the vice secretary of Beijing’s municipal government, said last week that the city, which has recorded more than 30 new infections in the past half month, would “discourage” tour groups. Entertainment venues, such as museums and theaters, will be operating at 75% capacity. Street fairs and sporting events may not be held.

Beijing residents, meanwhile, are being asked not to leave the capital. “Party and government officials will set an example and celebrate the holiday in Beijing,” Chen said during a press conference. “Don’t leave Beijing unless necessary … those who absolutely have to leave need to be managed by a strict approval process.”

“Given that much of chunyun will rely on public transportation, staying local when possible is the sensible and responsible choice considering COVID-19 prevention and control,” said Liu, the researcher in London.

Recognizing these risks, Wang Xiuchun, an officer at the Ministry of Transport, said during a press conference last week that public transportation workers would be given priority access to COVID-19 vaccines. Moreover, trains will reserve isolated “quarantine seats” for passengers suddenly showing fever-like symptoms during their trip.

Villagers wait at a checkpoint set up outside Xiguan Village, Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, Jan. 6, 2021. The region has tightened lockdown restrictions after an outbreak of COVID-19 infections. People Visual

Villagers wait at a checkpoint set up outside Xiguan Village, Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, Jan. 6, 2021. The region has tightened lockdown restrictions after an outbreak of COVID-19 infections. People Visual

Chunyun travel also puts pressure on rural areas and less-developed cities, which see a massive influx of people this time of year but lack the health care infrastructure needed to cope with emergencies. According to Liu, the movement creates a mismatch of population and medical resources, which the initial coronavirus outbreak in China shows can have severe consequences. Of the recent COVID-19 outbreak in Hebei, over 80% of cases were found in rural areas.

China’s national health commision held a meeting last week requesting local authorities to “enhance resource reserves and staff preparedness” in rural areas and “strictly prevent sporadic cases from spreading and transmitting.” Some local governments have rolled out strict testing and quarantine policies for people returning home.

Authorities in the central Chinese city of Luoyang said returnees must be quarantined at home for 14 days during which they would be tested twice for COVID-19 if they returned from areas with no current cases. Those who return from areas with known outbreaks will be quarantined at designated facilities for two weeks.

Several cities and counties in the eastern Anhui province have issued a letter urging migrant workers, who account for half of the province’s labor force, to spend Lunar New Year in the cities where they live. Those who do return will need a negative COVID-19 test or get tested on arrival.

Tourists ride the train from Chengdu to Shanghai, Jan. 23, 2020. Chinese health experts confirmed COVID-19 was capable of human-to-human transmission the same day. Qian Haifeng/People Visual

Tourists ride the train from Chengdu to Shanghai, Jan. 23, 2020. Chinese health experts confirmed COVID-19 was capable of human-to-human transmission the same day. Qian Haifeng/People Visual

“Each locality should customize its policies based on its own ability,” Shen, the infectious disease expert, said. “For example, less developed areas may not have the medical resources to treat the disease, but at least they can implement quarantines to stop the spread.”

Shen said while he understood that families want to be together, the public needs to follow COVID-19 prevention measures. “Going to places with current clusters is not a responsible choice,” he said. “Telling people to reduce travel may sound cold, but it’s to protect them.”

The warnings have left countless Chinese weighing whether to travel or stay put this year. Their choice might be especially difficult seeing as last year’s Spring Festival was also disrupted by COVID-19. According to data from the Ministry of Transport, people made 50% fewer trips during 2020’s Lunar New Year period than in 2019.

Telling people to reduce travel may sound cold, but it’s to protect them.

Wang Sida couldn’t go home last year because the virus was raging in his hometown of Huanggang, a city close to initial epicenter Wuhan. Going back was too risky, he told Sixth Tone. So the 27-year-old spent Spring Festival in Beijing, where he works, away from his family.

“After last year’s ‘special’ New Year, I realized how challenging reunions can be. So I want to go home even more this year to be with my parents,” he said. “But I’m not certain if I still can.”

With China now seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases and the Beijing government suggesting everyone stay in town, Wang fears his employer, an internet company, will ban all staff from traveling. He is reluctant to book a ticket to Huanggang. “I’ll be really down if I can’t go back home,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ll do then.”

Lin, a 36-year-old Wuhan native currently living in the eastern city Taizhou, has made plans to travel back home with his wife and two children to visit his parents on Feb. 9, three days before Lunar New Year Day. Last year, he wasn’t able to visit as Wuhan battled the outbreak of COVID-19.

“If there’s no major change in the outbreak situation, I won’t change my plan,” Lin told Sixth Tone. Although he already traveled home over the October vacation, the Lunar New Year holiday feels different.

“We Wuhan people have traditional foods that we only eat during Lunar New Year,” he said. “My mom told me she has prepared cured sausages and meats, just waiting for me to come back.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A couple looks out the window during a train ride from Chengdu to Shanghai, Jan. 24, 2020. Qian Haifeng/People Visual)