Lena Zhang was ready to get covid as she embarked on her first visit to China in three years, a visit that coincided with an explosion of coronavirus infections across the country.
After Beijing removed quarantine and other restrictions on entry last month, Zhang decided to make the long journey home for Lunar New Year — even though the country was, really for the first time since the pandemic began, experiencing a nationwide outbreak. Fully expecting to get infected on arrival in China, she prepared for a cautious celebration spent almost entirely at home.
The reality for Zhang, 42, and her family has been a quiet but relatively relaxed and surprisingly normal celebration because most people, including almost everyone in her family, caught the virus a while ago. Grocery stores and farmers markets have been crowded.
“It seems difficult to get infected,” she joked, alluding to the apparent current sweet spot of post-infection immunity.
In the short six weeks from China suddenly dropping its “zero covid” policy to the middle of January, a huge surge of infections, critical cases and deaths overwhelmed hospital emergency departments and forced crematoriums to work nonstop. Epidemiologists feared that a month of concentrated travel for the Spring Festival holiday, centered around Lunar New Year celebrations on Jan. 22, would extend the outbreak and bring it deep into rural areas, where the population is older and the medical facilities are often basic.
Instead, Chinese health authorities have this week doubled down on claims that the peak of deaths was in early January, and they say a second wave is unlikely to hit soon. Such a speedy recovery is at odds with international projections that suggest a far-higher death toll than the official count of just over 72,000 since restrictions were suddenly dropped in early December.
But many Chinese families, exhausted by three years of unpredictable disruption of their lives, have spent the holidays trying to move on.
The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday that infections from the current wave peaked in December, while critical cases have declined by more than 70 percent since early January. They added that the highest number of deaths in a single day was 4,273 on Jan. 4, and the count had fallen to 896 by Jan. 23.
Experts outside China are skeptical of these official numbers, and such an abrupt and relatively low peak is hard to match with projections by groups like Britain-based research group Airfinity, which earlier this month predicted that mass travel would push the daily death toll to about 36,000 this week. China’s mortality data includes only those who die in hospitals from respiratory failure or a sharp worsening of an underlying condition deemed caused directly by covid, a narrow definition that experts say excludes many covid-related deaths.
The reported number of deaths definitely underestimates the scale of the current outbreak, said Shengjie Lai, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Southampton in Britain. He added, however, that CDC estimates matched his models based on mobility and population data that put the peak of infections in late December.
With so many people catching the virus so quickly, the risk of reinfection over the holidays was low, but even “if only 0.1% of the infected population die, the absolute number of deaths in this wave will still be very big,” Lai said.
Zhang’s hometown of Baoding, a city of 3 million people about 100 miles southwest of Beijing, became among the earliest to suffer from surging infections, with reports in early December of overcrowded emergency departments. But by the end of the month, state media was holding the city up as a rapid recovery success story.
Officials began the holiday on a cautiously optimistic note. Chinese leader Xi Jinping broke with a decade-long tradition of visiting the countryside ahead of the holiday, instead holding a virtual call with rural residents. “Tough challenges remain,” he said, “but the light of hope is right in front of us.”
Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist at China’s CDC, on Jan. 21 estimated that around 80 percent of the country had already caught covid in this wave.
As the holiday progressed, the drumbeat of optimistic propaganda grew louder as reminders of the outbreak started to fade into the background. Eager for a long-awaited return to normalcy, many families appear happy to accept a sense of relief and forget about the virus for the holiday, as some are reunited for the first since the start of the pandemic.
Since the outbreak of the virus just before the Spring Festival in 2020, those employed far from home in construction or manufacturing were strongly encouraged by officials to forgo their once-a-year visit home over the Lunar New Year holiday and remain wherever they were employed.
This week, emotional videos uploaded by returning migrant workers who surprise young children or elderly parents have been shared widely online, often tagged with a simple three-character description: “It’s been three years.”
Optimism was apparent among online messages sent to Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who died of covid after being reprimanded by police for calling attention to the then-unknown virus.
Since his death, Li’s page on microblog Weibo has become a place of solace where many go to vent frustration, give thanks or wish for an end to the pandemic. “Doctor Li, the virus is much weaker now, everyone is happily celebrating the new year,” one user wrote this week. “If it had been like this at the start, you would have definitely been okay.”
Official propaganda has spurred on the sense of a new beginning. For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, a covid-themed skit was absent from the state broadcaster’s annual Spring Festival gala, the variety show switched on (and occasionally watched) in almost all Chinese homes on Lunar New Year’s eve. Its live audience did not wear masks.
Before the Lunar New Year, the Cybersecurity Administration of China urged vigilance against “gloomy sentiments” and pandemic-related rumors in a bid to “cultivate a positive, spiritually healthy atmosphere for online public opinion during Spring Festival.”
The censor’s heavy hand has been evident. Videos of patients packed into hospital hallways, once widely shared, have become hard to find online. Instead, dominating social media discussion are topics such as which Chinese movie would top the holiday box office.
The reversal has been so dramatic that some online even began to question whether the virus had just suddenly disappeared. Ming Jinwei, a former state media editor turned political blogger, responded that, while it wasn’t yet gone, “the impact of the virus on the vast majority of people is right now fading away.”
“Chinese society has created a basic barrier of natural immunity at a speed rarely seen elsewhere in the world,” he wrote in an essay on social media app WeChat.
Regardless of the veracity of the official pronouncements, many in China now, after a period of caution, appear ready to accept that the pandemic is coming to an end. Holiday train, plane and automobile travel is near pre-covid levels with 700 million trips having been taken as of Jan. 26. Tourists have flocked to popular sightseeing destinations around the country.
The southern island of Hainan, sometimes called China’s Hawaii, has been especially popular as people flee from record-breaking cold in the north. State media has reported that resort hotels in the southernmost city of Sanya are 90 percent full.
Zhang and her family in Baoding have joined those going south — prepared, once again, to accept the risk of getting infected on the way. “I’m heading to Hainan on yet another packed plane,” she said by text. “Let’s see what happens.”
Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.