The Lunar New Year marks the start of a new year of the lunar calendar and is normally associated with grand festivals and massive celebrations. The holiday also triggers the largest human migration in the world every year, as hundreds of millions of people travel across China to spend the holiday with their families. However, in the face of a global pandemic, the Chinese government’s fear of this holiday becoming a superspreader event has caused many people to not be able to see their families in what’s usually the only time they get to visit them.
Chunyun, the approximately 40-day long season during which many Chinese people travel for the new year, started on January 28th and will last until March 8th. The New Year is on February 12th, near the middle of the Chunyun period, which usually sees around three billion trips. However, this year, the Chinese government has discouraged travel due to the pandemic and implemented safety measures including COVID-19 detection tests, quarantines, and incentives to stay at home.
People who are still planning to travel must now take a nucleic acid test with negative results a week before returning home. Those returning to rural areas are also required to observe a two week quarantine period. These efforts to prevent the spread of the virus disproportionately affect migrant workers, many of whom find these measures impossible to pay for due to the expensive costs of tests. This effectively bars millions of people from traveling to see their families this year.
Last year, as the virus first started to disrupt daily life, travel around the Lunar New Year in China was cut in half to around 1.48 billion trips. With China returning to normal life, that number is supposed to increase significantly. Although cities seem to have their COVID-19 cases under control, officials are concerned that widespread travel could lead to more outbreaks of the virus, especially in rural areas.
Travel during this time most commonly involves people going from rural areas to cities. Clusters of new cases in recent weeks have caused China’s cities to make efforts to restrict travel. For example, Beijing requires negative COVID tests results to even get inside the city. The government also made plans to vaccinate 50 million people in Beijing in preparation for the holiday, which includes the general population on top of at-risk residents and healthcare workers. Everywhere else in China, millions of doses of vaccines are being administered to essential workers only. However, with China’s large population, only about 1.6% of the population received the first shot of the two-dose vaccine by the end of January since only about 24 millions doses have been administered.
The Chinese government also took a different approach by encouraging companies to pay their employees overtime, incentivizing them to work instead of traveling. In Shanghai, officials have planned to pay for the phone and medical bills of those who decide not to travel this year. Companies in cities like Zhejiang, Ningbo, and Quanzhou have been giving the traditional monetary gifts, known as red packets, to workers who choose to forego their long trips home. The government has even implemented propaganda campaigns with messages that promote safety precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing throughout the country.
With this Lunar New Year’s celebration threatening to undo the nation’s efforts to combat COVID, the Chinese government is doing what they can to decrease traveling and still appease those who are most affected by the inability to travel this year.
Through Teen Lenses: What are your thoughts on China’s travel restrictions for the Lunar New Year?
“Lunar New Year is traditionally a holiday spent specifically with family, and so China demanding that people don’t travel would take a large toll on those away from their family. Covid is definitely a very valid reason for China restricting travel for Lunar New Year but the effect is a tough stretch of time for those away from their family and maybe more regulations could be made to make travel safer instead of just banning it all together, especially for those with lower incomes.” Samuel Chao, 16, Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“I personally believe that the travel restrictions in China are harsh but crucial. In Chinese culture, Lunar New Year is usually one of the only times of the year where the whole family comes together and celebrates traditions. Despite the importance of this holiday, cities in China are extremely prone to outbreaks so it could be too dangerous to lift restrictions. In a city like Beijing where the population is over 21 million and everyone is in such close proximity, China’s hard work at keeping COVID rates low could go to waste.” Anonymous, 16, Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“It is very unfortunate that China is demanding that people don’t travel for Lunar New Year because after such a trying year, I think many people just want to see their families and enjoy the holiday together. However, I can understand why such a restriction was put into place. There is a clear necessity to stay home in order to prevent the spread of the virus especially with the new strains that have been spreading. Therefore, it is important to prioritize the health and safety of the residents above all else.” Parth Mishra, 16, Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD