Last January, when the government of China imposed an unprecedented lockdown on the city of Wuhan in a belated effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, it was right before the start of the Lunar New Year, the country’s most important holiday. Soon the shutdown was extended to encompass all 60 million people in the surrounding province of Hubei, and fear of the virus led millions more to cancel their holiday plans. Now the virus is likely to disrupt the holiday for a second year, with officials advising the public not to travel as they battle outbreaks in two major cities.
After months of near-zero case numbers that have allowed life in China to largely return to normal, the country of 1.4 billion people has recorded 42 locally transmitted cases in the past week, many of them of unknown origin. Most appeared in Dalian, a northern port city, but there have also been a few in Beijing, the capital.
In line with the government response to previous outbreaks this year, officials have been testing hundreds of thousands of people in Beijing and millions in Dalian, and residents of Dalian have been advised not to leave the city.
Officials in Beijing are looking even further ahead to the Lunar New Year, during which hundreds of millions of Chinese travel to their hometowns in what has been called the world’s largest annual human migration. Citing concerns that holiday travel could spread the virus, the government is discouraging Beijing residents from traveling and gathering for the holiday, especially the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions. Travel companies have also been told not to organize any group tours to Beijing during the holiday, which this year falls on Feb. 12.
Other parts of the country are taking precautions as well. Anhui Province, home to many of China’s migrant workers, plans to test and monitor all those who return for the holiday. The governments of Anhui Province and Shanxi Province have also advised residents to limit private gatherings to 10 people during the holiday period.
Chinese officials and health experts say they are confident that China will not have a major outbreak in the new year, citing plans to vaccinate 50 million people before the Lunar New Year as well as the greater experience they have in testing and contact tracing compared with a year ago.
Since the pandemic began, China has reported almost 97,000 coronavirus cases and 4,634 deaths.