Sheng Chun had not visited his parents in their mountain village in southern China for more than three years because China’s “zero Covid” restrictions made travel difficult. Then the country abandoned its stringent pandemic rules, and he decided to take a long-anticipated road trip.
With his son and wife, Mr. Sheng, 43, embarked on a two-week journey from Beijing that would cover more than 1,000 miles, through cultural spots like a Ming dynasty village and temples, then finally home for the Lunar New Year. He hoped to later drive his parents back to Beijing.
“I want them to go out and have more fun,” he said. “They’re in their 70s now, and for a while I was too busy working. I feel guilty that I didn’t really spend time with them.”
When the coronavirus spread widely out of the central Chinese city of Wuhan in early 2020, local and provincial governments moved quickly to lock down tens of millions of people. The past few Lunar New Years have been muted affairs, with many deterred from traveling by fear of the virus or by lockdowns, quarantines or other onerous rules.
This year, the most important holiday on China’s calendar has a different feel. It comes just weeks after the government, facing economic pressure and widespread public discontent, lifted its stringent Covid-19 restrictions. For many people, the joy of finally seeing far-flung loved ones without the risk of getting caught in a lockdown is laced with anxiety — in particular, the fear of spreading the virus to older relatives in rural communities unequipped medically to handle it.
Hundreds of millions of people have been on the move, packing into train stations and bus terminals with overstuffed suitcases and bags full of gifts as they have made their way home.
That travel rush — in pre-Covid times, typically the world’s largest annual migration — used to be a source of public complaints. But on social media, people celebrated this year’s congestion as a sign of a return to normal, or at least a new normal.
Even as the virus has continued to spread around the country, many welcomed that new phase. They pointed to announcements by some provincial and local governments that the current wave of cases in some cities had peaked as a sign that for now, the worst may have passed. It was time to think about something other than Covid — like multigenerational reunions, complete with feasting and fireworks. For some people, it was time for that awkward moment of introducing a new love interest to their families.
Wang Yanjie, 30, a product manager in Shanghai, had hoped to take her boyfriend of two years to her home village in central China but was thwarted twice: first by a two-month lockdown last spring and later, by a coronavirus outbreak in her home province in November.
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The Chinese government cast aside its restrictive “zero Covid” policy, which had set off mass protests that were a rare challenge to Communist Party leadership.
Finally, Ms. Wang and her boyfriend took an early train to the northwestern city of Bozhou from Shanghai’s Hongqiao station, then car-pooled with other residents to her hometown near Zhoukou in Henan Province. On the first night, she watched nervously as her parents and boyfriend chatted over handmade noodles, steamed vegetables and chicken feet. Then, in a sign of approval, they asked when they could meet his parents.
“It went quite well,” said Ms. Wang, relieved. “They thought my boyfriend was handsome, earnest and well-mannered.”
China expects traffic over the holiday to nearly double compared with the prior year, exceeding two billion passenger trips in the 40-day period starting in early January. And while the formal rules on travel have relaxed, the admonitory official language is unchanged.
Nearly 13,000 people with Covid died in Chinese hospitals in the seven-day period that ended Jan. 19, officials have said. At a news conference last Monday, Li Yanming, a department head at the Beijing Hospital, warned of rising cases and urged citizens to take precautions. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a notice discouraging long-distance travel for those still recovering from the latest wave of coronavirus outbreaks. Early this month China’s transportation ministry urged symptomatic travelers to avoid travel and large gatherings.
“This year, Lunar New Year travel peak coincides with the peak wave of the virus,” Xu Chengguang, the vice minister of transport, told the state news media. “It’s the most challenging spring festival in recent years.”
Much of that challenge will unfold in China’s countryside, where a surge in cases partly set off by migrant workers returning to their home villages could hobble China’s sparse network of underresourced rural heath care systems.
In mid-December, a coronavirus wave that ripped through the city of Jinzhong, in Shanxi Province, overstretched its hospitals. Long lines formed outside smaller village clinics, and medical equipment like beds and ventilators ran short. Dr. Guo Xiaohong, a physician at a clinic in the city, said that many had recovered since then, and that visits to her clinic had declined by half. But the New Year travel rush holds with it the possibility of similar episodes elsewhere — or even again in Jinzhong.
“Experts say the population has achieved herd immunity, but how much resistance does this immunity produce against the mutation of the virus?” said Dr. Guo, who has also urged people not to travel far or even to visit relatives during the Lunar New Year.
Concerns over another rural outbreak also lingered in the mind of Liu Han, a villager who had recently returned to Xiangtan, 700 miles south of Jinzhong. His family, along with the rest of the village, caught the virus from workers at a nearby factory for betel nuts, a local Hunan delicacy.
“We’ve been closed down for so long — three years — you develop some habits, right? I’ve been locked down to the point of fear now. I’m scared of it,” he said, referring to the virus.
Mr. Liu also saw the toll Covid had taken on the village, which was made up mostly of older people. Main thoroughfares were quiet, and supermarkets and pharmacy shelves had been emptied by people stocking up. His father, a restaurant owner, had temporarily closed his restaurant because of illness among the staff. Four villagers in their 70s and 90s had died in recent weeks, Mr. Liu said, adding that he did not dare to speculate on the cause.
Now, as friends and relatives arrive home for the holiday, Mr. Liu remains uneasy. “It’s precisely because we’ve opened up that I feel so tense,” he said.
This Lunar New Year comes at the same time as the third anniversary of the lockdowns in Wuhan, a coincidence virtually impossible for many Chinese to ignore.
“Wuhan has made such a big sacrifice; no one should forget it, at least I won’t,” said Song Fei, 19, a college student in Kunming, in southern China. Wuhan was a “heroic” city, she said, one in which people paid a high price for publicizing the truth about the pandemic.
Last weekend, with around three-quarters of his road trip back home completed, Mr. Sheng arrived in the city where the pandemic first emerged. There were few reminders left of that time, he said, except for roadside propaganda slogans lauding the heroism of Wuhan’s residents at the height of the pandemic.
The atmosphere of panic that gripped the city in 2020 “had disappeared,” Mr. Sheng said. “Everyone’s lives have returned to normal.”
At a temple, Mr. Sheng joined a crowd of Wuhan residents lighting incense at the altar, praying for good fortune in the coming year.
“Of the last three years, I think this year will be the best,” he said.
Olivia Wang contributed research.