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Explained | China’s ‘chunyun’, the largest annual migration, and what it means for the COVID-19 surge
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The Lunar New Year holiday in China this year will be the first without pandemic restrictions on foreign and domestic travel since 2020.

January 14, 2023 04:47 pm | Updated January 26, 2023 01:41 pm IST

Travellers wearing face masks head to the immigration counter at the departure hall at Lok Ma Chau station following the reopening of the border with mainland China, in Hong Kong, on January 8, 2023

Travellers wearing face masks head to the immigration counter at the departure hall at Lok Ma Chau station following the reopening of the border with mainland China, in Hong Kong, on January 8, 2023 | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: Considered the largest annual human migration across the world, “chunyun” kicked off in China last week with Beijing bidding farewell to its strict zero-COVID policy, after almost three years of the pandemic. During the 40-day period of travel, people are expected to make around two billion trips as they shuttle between destinations to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Bracing for a spurt in coronavirus infections in the wake of the country reopening its borders and the upcoming New Year travel rush, several countries have imposed restrictions on travellers coming from China — a step which has elicited a strong response from Beijing.

How is chunyun related to the Chinese Lunar New Year?

The Chinese Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, is the country’s most widely celebrated festival. The Chinese Lunar New Year is based on the lunar calendar, used by the Chinese for festivals and other traditional days, while they stick to the Gregorian calendar for business purposes. Each lunar year is represented by one of the 12 zodiac animals — rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig—this year is the Year of the Rabbit.

The Lunar New Year falls around a month after the first day of the Gregorian calendar. One-fifth of the world’s population celebrates the Lunar New Year, including Vietnam, Thailand, the Phillippines, Japan, and China.

People buy decorations for the Lunar New Year at a market in Qingdao in China’s eastern Shandong province on January 3, 2020.

People buy decorations for the Lunar New Year at a market in Qingdao in China’s eastern Shandong province on January 3, 2020. | Photo Credit: AFP

The Spring Festival also marks the beginning of spring and the end of winter. During the holiday period, people return to their hometowns and families for a joint celebration, leading to one of the largest movements of humans in the world— “chunyun”, simply translated as “spring transportation”. Typically, the travel season begins 15 days before the New Year and celebrations last for around 40 days. It ends after 15 days of country-wide festivities that include fireworks and dancing dragons. During this time, airports and railway stations are usually overcrowded and there is heavy traffic on roads.  

This year, the Lunar New Year holiday will officially begin on January 21. The chunyun travel period began on January 7. This will be the first time the Lunar New Year is held without any restrictions on domestic travel since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020. China’s Ministry of Transport expects more than two billion trips over 40 days to mark the Year of the Rabbit — nearly double the number that travelled last year and almost 70% of 2019 levels.

How will the Spring Festival travel rush impact China’s COVID-19 situation?

The situation in China is worrisome, with a surge in infections and hospitalisation in major cities in the last few months. The upcoming Lunar Year festivities and travel rush have added to the growing anxiety as the country braces for further spread of the virus following the abrupt end of its stringent zero-COVID policy.

The government has asked travellers to take measures to avoid a major new outbreak during the New Year travel rush. The transportation department has asked people to reduce trips and gatherings, wear masks and pay attention to their health and personal hygiene. According to State media, the ongoing COVID wave has already passed its peak in the provinces of Henan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Sichuan and Hainan and the major cities of Beijing and Chongqing. Experts, however, fear that migration of people from urban to rural areas will result in a surge in COVID infections in ill-prepared smaller towns that lack resources.

Experts warned in the past that the country could see over a million deaths if it drops its zero-COVID policy without any safeguards. Zhou Jiatong, Head of the Center for Disease Control in Guangxi region, wrote in the Shanghai Journal of Preventive Medicine that mainland China could face more than two million deaths if it loosened COVID curbs in the same way Hong Kong did. Another paper estimated 684 deaths per million if all provinces simultaneously reopen, amounting to 9,64,400 deaths for China’s current population of 1.41 billion. The paper, however, wasn’t peer-reviewed when it was cited in a Reuters report last month.

Patients with COVID symptoms crowded at the Changhai Hospital hall as they receiving medical treatment, in Shanghai, China, January 3.

Patients with COVID symptoms crowded at the Changhai Hospital hall as they receiving medical treatment, in Shanghai, China, January 3. | Photo Credit: AP

The vast elderly Chinese population is at a higher risk since their vaccination coverage remains poor. Government data shows that while the overall vaccination rate in China is above 90%, the rate for adults who have taken booster shots stands at 57.9%, dropping to 42.3% for those aged 80 and above. Doubts, meanwhile, surround the efficacy of the vaccines— China has only used indigenously produced Sinopharm and CoronaVac, while research suggests that western mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Modern may be more effective.

The World Health Organisation also recently criticised the handling of the pandemic in China, saying it hadn’t received data in the weeks after Beijing lifted its zero-COVID policy. The health body said delayed data on new COVID hospitalisations showed a nearly 50% increase since January 1 (till Jan 5).

Are there any restrictions on travellers from China?

The Chinese government’s decision to lift travel restrictions ahead of the Lunar New Year and the WHO’s criticism has raised alarm about the size and impact of the outbreak in China. Over a dozen countries have imposed mandatory COVID tests for travellers from China. These include India, the U.S. , Japan, Italy and Taiwan. 

Beijing termed restrictions on travellers from China as “discriminatory” and in retaliation, suspended issuing short-term visas for travellers from South Korea and Japan, further escalating the diplomatic spat. South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin called the action “significantly regrettable”. South Korea’s Disease Control and Prevention Agency said about 17% of the 2,550 short-term travellers from China from Jan. 2 to Tuesday have tested positive, as per an Associated Press report.

Japan has also hit out at China, asking Beijing to scrap the measures. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Japan had to take temporary measures to avoid the inflow of infections into the country because of China’s spreading infections and lack of transparency about the situation. About 97% of 497 people who tested positive upon arrival from December 31 to January 9 were Chinese or had recently been in China, according to government data.

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