SHANGHAI — Wang Yuanyuan was supposed to be on a high-speed train to Wuhan for a big Lunar New Year’s Eve family dinner on Friday.
But instead, she is more than 800 kilometers away in Shanghai, where she lives and works, scrolling through news feeds for the latest updates on the novel coronavirus outbreak that originated in her hometown, and missing out on the annual reunion to welcome the Year of the Rat.
“I miss my parents and my 85-year-old grandma,” the 24-year-old told Sixth Tone on Thursday. “But if I go to Wuhan, I feel like I will expose myself to the virus, and I worry it might even affect my life when I return to Shanghai. People around me might see me as a walking virus.”
More than 400 million Chinese people are expected to travel to their hometowns for the the Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival. For many migrant workers who endure long hours and endless shifts throughout the year, the weeklong annual holiday may be their only chance to see their families.
Spring Festival is a time when elderly people are reunited with their children who’ve moved away to big cities for work, and in many cases the only time young couples see children they entrust to grandparents for a majority of the year.
However, this year’s reunion for millions of people in Wuhan and surrounding cities in the central Hubei province has been characterized by fear and heartbreak, with over a dozen cities and counting turning into quarantine zones amid the coronavirus outbreak. Thirteen cities in Hubei including Wuhan are in partial or total lockdown mode, with air and ground transportation suspended since Thursday in a bid to contain the virus.
As of noon Friday, there were around 550 confirmed coronavirus infections in Wuhan. Nationwide, 26 people have died and at least 870 people in nearly every provincial-level administrative region of China have been infected.
Lin Xi, who works in Wuhan, said he heard about an “unidentified pneumonia” as early as mid-December, when such news first appeared on Chinese social media. The 30-year-old added that at first, he and those he knew didn’t take it seriously, and went about their daily lives in the city of 14 million people without the slightest concern.
There were no signs of an epidemic in the initial weeks of the outbreak, Lin said. He got married this month and was looking forward to taking his bride to the southwestern Guizhou province to meet his family.
The couple had booked their flights in November, shopped for new clothes, and even prepared a dozen hongbao — cash-stuffed red envelopes exchanged over Chinese holidays — for his parents and children in the family.
But when Lin and his new bride heard about a mandatory mask policy and possible travel restrictions this week, they decided to cancel their plans and stay put.
“At first, my parents still insisted that we come home for the reunion,” he told Sixth Tone. “But when they saw the news and realized how serious it was, even they told the other relatives back home to hold off on the family new year dinner.”
On Monday, the National Health Commission confirmed that the new coronavirus was being transmitted from person to person and infecting medical workers, raising concerns that the mass migration over the holiday period might cause an epidemic. A leading scientist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention also recommended that people “not travel to Wuhan,” and that people in Wuhan “stay put if they can.”
As the country welcomes the Lunar New Year and families gather for the customary feast, it will be a somber night for many in Wuhan, as well as those with close ties to the city. They may greet their loved ones over video calls instead of hugging them in person, and may have to rely on friends as stand-ins for family far away.
“Of course it’s disappointing that we can’t go home,” Lin said. “But distance is not a problem as long as our hearts are together.”
Wang, meanwhile, says she plans to spend Lunar New Year’s Eve with a colleague’s family in Shanghai.
“I might cry when I video chat with my parents, because this is the first time in my life that I’m spending the new year without them,” she said.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: A security guard wearing a mask patrols on Hankou Street in Wuhan, Hubei province, Jan. 23, 2020. From @红星新闻 on Weibo)