“We can’t wait!”: after the wait, the Chinese finally at home for the New Year

In a crowded train, Wang Chunfeng is jubilant: like millions of Chinese as the Lunar New Year approaches, this entrepreneur returns to his family on Friday after three years of separation due to anti-Covid restrictions.

The New Year’s Eve of the Rabbit will take place on Saturday and will mark the start of the “Spring Festival”, the most important family gathering in China, the equivalent of Christmas in the Christian world.

With travel restrictions now lifted in the country, passengers squeeze into a train between Shanghai (east) and Wuhan (center), the city where the first cases of Covid in the world were detected at the end of 2019.

“Tomorrow we will have a big family reunion!” Wang Chunfeng, aged 40, who lives in Taizhou, near Shanghai, told AFP. “It’s the first time I’ve been back in three years.”

He explains that because of the epidemic, his child’s school forbade parents to leave the city, in order to minimize the risk of spreading the virus in the establishment when they returned from vacation.

Travelers board the Shanghai-Wuhan train on January 20, 2023 in China (AFP – Hector RETAMAL)

The government abruptly dismantled its “zero Covid” health strategy in early December, a series of draconian measures against the epidemic which transformed each trip elsewhere in China into an obstacle course.

The end of this policy marks a return to a certain normality, even if the number of Covid cases has since exploded.

To the point that President Xi Jinping said this week that he was “concerned” about the epidemic situation in the Chinese countryside.

– Surprise –

The arrival of tens of millions of Chinese from cities in rural areas which are sometimes medical deserts raises fears of a new epidemic rebound.

Travelers aboard the Shanghai-Wuhan train on January 20, 2023 in China (AFP - Hector RETAMAL)
Travelers aboard the Shanghai-Wuhan train on January 20, 2023 in China (AFP – Hector RETAMAL)

But aboard the Shanghai-Wuhan, the atmosphere is festive.

“We can’t wait to see our parents. We’re going to surprise them!” smiles Ms. Li, 35, who is traveling with her husband, with whom she owns a restaurant near Shanghai.

“To make sure I got tickets, I rang my alarm clock at 5 a.m. for a week,” she explains.

Succeeding in buying tickets online, “it’s much more difficult than last year” because millions of people were connecting at the same time, explains her husband.

Mrs Li explains that her parents had the Covid but are now recovered.

After the discovery of the first cases of Covid-19 in Wuhan, its 11 million inhabitants had spent the New Year 2020 confined. The metropolis had been cut off from the outside world for 76 days.

Several other cities in Hubei, the province of which it is the capital, had also been confined.

A controller checks passenger tickets for the Shanghai-Wuhan train on January 20, 2023 in China (AFP - Hector RETAMAL)
A controller checks passenger tickets for the Shanghai-Wuhan train on January 20, 2023 in China (AFP – Hector RETAMAL)

Mandatory screening tests, health rules that could change from one day to the next and the risk of ending up in quarantine on arrival had largely deterred the Chinese from traveling since the start of the epidemic.

But since the abandonment of zero Covid, tourism in China has experienced a very strong recovery.

– Mask and jumpsuit –

Backpack on her knees, suitcase and sports bag under her feet in Shanghai-Wuhan, a young woman wrapped up in a yellow cap kills time while watching a series on her phone.

Passengers on the Shanghai-Wuhan train, January 20, 2023 (AFP - Hector RETAMAL)
Passengers on the Shanghai-Wuhan train, January 20, 2023 (AFP – Hector RETAMAL)

For lack of space, her purse hangs on the seat of the neighbor in front.

Next door, a young girl delighted to be on the trip immortalizes the moment with a selfie.

All passengers wear a mask.

And everyone AFP spoke to said they caught Covid and have since recovered.

But some habits persist: one traveler wears a full suit and others protect their faces with a plastic visor.

A hostess regularly disinfects the floor and an announcement in the train regularly reminds that the epidemic is not over.

A traveler in full protective gear against Covid-19 on board the Shanghai-Wuhan train, January 20, 2023 (AFP - Hector RETAMAL)
A traveler in full protective gear against Covid-19 on board the Shanghai-Wuhan train, January 20, 2023 (AFP – Hector RETAMAL)

A pointless reminder for Tang Shufeng: his grandfather recently died of Covid.

The 34-year-old man, who works in the naval sector, said he took the holidays to visit his grandmother in Huanggang, a city near Wuhan.

“She is not well at all because of the Covid”, he explains, adding to be “very worried”.

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