SHANGHAI — There’s a saying in China that people always return home for the Spring Festival, no matter the distance. But the pandemic has changed that for many who had no choice but to cancel plans to reunite with their family for the third year in a row.
With hundreds of millions of people crisscrossing the country during the peak travel season, authorities are concerned about the possible spread of COVID-19 after multiple cities reported coronavirus flare-ups over the past months. Some local governments urged residents to stay put by offering cash and other incentives, while others mandated both centralized quarantine and home isolation for those returning from “medium- and high-risk areas.”
“It’s only a seven-day holiday — if I go home and need to quarantine for 14 days, it’ll delay my return to work,” Zhang Hua, who works at a private company in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone.
So the 33-year-old decided to miss kicking off the Year of the Tiger with his family in the central province of Henan for the third year since the start of the pandemic. He knew he had to cancel his plans when Shanghai reported multiple infections just weeks ahead of the Lunar New Year, with residents’ mobile health codes marked with an asterisk, indicating the city had medium-risk areas.
“It’s almost impossible that the asterisk would be removed, so I don’t think I’d be welcomed in Henan,” Zhang said.
Henan is among the provinces to report hundreds of confirmed COVID-19 infections amid the recent nationwide outbreaks that have stretched over three months. Officials in the city of Anyang, which also reported the highly transmissible Omicron infection earlier this month, said they “earnestly hoped” that residents wouldn’t come home for the holidays.
Dong Hong, the mayor of Dancheng County in Henan, was quoted as saying in a viral video clip that those violating pandemic prevention rules or who had “maliciously” returned to their hometown would be quarantined and later detained. He added the move was to “ensure the safety of the people.”
County officials sent oil, quilts, and coats to locals as early as Jan. 1, urging them to discourage family members from other parts of China from visiting them for the Spring Festival. One town in the county said they persuaded nearly 1,500 people to celebrate the new year “in place” with “remarkable results.”
Few eastern cities are also tempting residents with incentives to stay put, just like in previous years: Hangzhou, which is currently experiencing a local outbreak, announced 600 yuan ($95) worth of coupons for non-local migrant workers; Hefei said out of town workers in key industrial sectors would receive 1,000 yuan of “red envelope” bonuses; and Wuxi decided to either slash or exempt one month’s rent for “qualified enterprises” that accommodate its workers.
However, those who have been away from home for extended periods are turning down such offers, instead opting to see their families. Several migrant workers, who mostly get time off only during the Spring Festival, told Sixth Tone earlier this month that they decided to travel home earlier than usual, fearing possible restrictions closer to the Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb. 1 this year.
But those not returning said they felt a sense of déjà vu, as they tick off another Spring Festival against the backdrop of the pandemic — though there was less anxiety this time.
An employee surnamed Wu at a Beijing-based state-owned company, remembered the frantic days ahead of the Spring Festival in 2020. At first, she was determined to travel to her hometown in the eastern province of Anhui, scrambling to look for face masks and hand sanitizers, which were all sold out, before eventually canceling her train tickets as more news about the outbreak in Wuhan started trickling in.
That year, she spent the holiday alone in her apartment, video chatting with her family, and hoped to celebrate with her parents and grandparents the following year. But in 2021, with several local governments discouraging people from traveling long distances, she once again stayed in the city and spent the Spring Festival with her sister’s family.
2022 wasn’t turning out to be any different, Wu said.
This year, she again plans to spend her New Year with her sister and brother-in-law, along with her newborn niece. She hoped to visit her elderly grandparents soon, having already missed three family reunions during the most important annual holiday.
“I’m worried I won’t be able to spend the New Year with them ever again,” Wu said. “I really hope to spend the next one with them.”
This article was published on Sixth Tone.