The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

A medical worker collects a swab from a man at a nucleic acid testing booth set up at a highway exit in Ruian, Zhejiang province, on December 14. (Stringer/via Reuters)

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. Last year, because of the pandemic, she spent the holiday in her adopted city with friends, heeding government calls 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. Both municipal governments have rushed to halt transmission with targeted tracing, mass testing and lockdowns.

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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. “We were told that it’s not a mandate, but strongly recommended,” she said, referring to instructions from her husband’s company. Deng’s husband had planned to go home to Hunan province to visit his mother, who lives alone.

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

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. “Families reuniting for new year has been a tradition for thousands of years. For us, this is as important as defending against the pandemic.”

“When you asked us to get booster shots, I complied. Nucleic acid tests, I also complied. But three years of not going home is too much,” another wrote.

Other residents such as Zhang say they accept the containment measures but wonder whether the current approach can last. “Zero covid is really difficult. People have to follow all kinds of restrictions. 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.

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Langzhong city in Sichuan province on Sunday published an open letter calling on migrant workers not to return unless necessary. In Yulin, in Guangxi province, authorities suggested substituting a trip with video calls. Officials in Shanghai called on residents to cancel nonessential trips.

Additional measures have been taken to prevent omicron from disrupting the Winter Games. Beijing has asked travelers from about a dozen locations deemed risky to report to local health officials on their return to the capital. 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, the editor of the Global Times, warned in a post on Sunday against “rashly” asking people to forgo visits to 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. In the context of the pandemic, Spring Festival is also a kind of therapy,” an editorial in Beijing News said on Wednesday.

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 has set up omicron-only quarantine areas in designated 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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