As omicron arrives in China, covid restrictions leave millions facing holidays without family

All year, Shirley Zhang — a translator in Hangzhou, China — has been looking forward to going home to Xi’an for Lunar New Year, when small things such as running errands for her parents or catching up on neighborhood gossip fill her with joy. She spent last year’s holiday with her friends in her adopted town, following government orders not to travel.

“The meaning of new year is getting together with family. This kind of happiness isn’t the same as with friends,” said the 29-year-old. “We all hope to go home.”

For the third year in a row, millions of people such as Zhang are likely to miss out on Lunar New Year, the most anticipated holiday on the Chinese calendar, as the omicron variant breaches China’s stringent covid-19 defenses and prompts even more severe restrictions ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Authorities this week detected the country’s first omicron cases — one in the port city of Tianjin, close to Beijing, and another in the southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou. Each municipal government has rushed to stop transmission by mass testing, targeted tracing and lockdowns.

Even before the new variant’s arrival, officials were tightening border controls and discouraging residents from traveling over the holiday that begins on Jan. 31 and ends, officially, on Feb. 6. In Zhejiang province, the site of a new outbreak of almost 300 cases, more than half a million people have been ordered to stay home and another 100,000 have been sent to quarantine facilities.

China, one of the last countries to maintain a “zero covid” policy, has insisted on the merits of its approach, from locking down entire theme parks, residential blocks and schools when a single case is detected, to quarantining incoming travelers for up to six weeks.

But as residents prepare to spend another Spring Festival, as the holiday is known, without their families, the costs of China’s zero-covid policy have come to the fore, sparking frustration over how long ordinary citizens can be expected to put their lives on hold.

Deng Juanjuan, a 34-year-old English teacher in Beijing, and her husband, an IT engineer at a state-owned securities company, will be “celebrating in place,” as local officials have been encouraging. She said that she was told it wasn’t a mandate but highly recommended by her husband. Deng’s husband planned to return to Hunan to see his single mother.

“It’s depressing to see the restrictions go on and on, and there is no escape. Deng asked, “When is life going to become normal again?”

For many of China’s 370 million migrant workers, the Lunar New Year is their only chance to visit family for an extended break.

“How many three years are there in a person’s life?” one user on the microblog Weibo asked. For thousands of years, families have gathered to celebrate the new year. For us, this is as important as defending against the pandemic.”

“When you asked us to get booster shots, I complied. Also, nucleic acid testing was something I did. Another wrote that three years without going home was too long.

Other residents such as Zhang say they accept the containment measures but wonder whether the current approach can last. It is very difficult to have zero covid. All kinds of limitations must be adhered to by people. You can require that of one person, of 10 people, but you can’t demand that of 1 billion people,” she said.

Citing the risk of omicron spreading, officials in Taiyuan in Shanxi province on Wednesday called on those working for government or state-owned companies to “set an example” and forgo trips home for the holidays.

Langzhong city in Sichuan province on Sunday published an open letter calling on migrant workers not to return unless necessary. Authorities suggested that a Yulin trip could be replaced with video calls in Guangxi. Shanghai officials urged residents not to travel on non-essential trips.

Additional measures have been taken to prevent omicron from disrupting the Winter Games. Beijing asked people from more than a dozen places deemed dangerous to inform local health officials upon their return to Beijing. In Zhangjiakou, 45 minutes from Beijing by high-speed rail, government workers, state company employees and civil servants in an Olympics development zone were asked to cancel nonessential trips over Lunar New Year.

The announcements sparked criticism even in state-run outlets. Hu Xijin (editor of Global Times) warned against asking people to cancel visits to their loved ones.

“It’s obvious that the pandemic will not disappear in the short term … but life must continue, the economy must continue,” he wrote. The point of the zero-covid approach, he added, is “to minimize the costs of pandemic measures, not disregard the costs.”

“As the pandemic lengthens, it is necessary to consider people’s psychological endurance. According to a Beijing News editorial, Wednesday’s pandemic is causing the Spring Festival to be considered a form of therapy.

Over the summer, China’s rising vaccination rates and the arrival of the delta variant sparked a debate about whether it was time to join other nations in gradually opening borders.

After pushback and official studies arguing that border relaxation would rapidly lead to more cases than China had faced in Wuhan in early 2020, few experts have since argued for changing course.

The arrival of omicron is likely to reinforce that resolve. Tianjin established omicron-only quarantine zones in hospitals. In Guangzhou, more than 1,000 people deemed close contacts or suspected close contacts of the infected individual have been placed in centralized quarantine.

Health officials argue that the zero-covid strategy remains the most cost-effective for China. Liang Wannian, head of the National Health Commission’s team for the covid-19 response, told a briefing last week that the “dynamic” approach was not aiming for total eradication of local transmission, which was now impossible, but rather to break new transmission chains as quickly as possible.

“‘Dynamic zero-tolerance’ is not lying flat,” he said, referring to a trend, discouraged by the government, of young Chinese taking it easy in the face of social pressure. “It’s not just letting the epidemic grow, but rather controlling it, cutting it off.”

Alicia Chen in Taipei, Taiwan, and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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