Chinese New Year during COVID: Another Disrupted Holiday Season

February 08, 2021

On February 12, the Year of the Ox will officially begin in China. As always, observances connected to the New Year will continue for the next two weeks — until the Spring Lantern Festival, marking the end of Winter — though only the first seven days of the period are recognized as an official state holiday.

Most Chinese use this time to travel. Some take vacations, including abroad. Many leave the dense urban areas to visit families in more rural zones. Known as the Chunyun period, this time of travel is often described as the world’s largest human migration.

Last year’s Chunyun, of course, was like no other in modern Chinese memory.

On December 31, 2019 — at the cusp of the 2020 travel ramp-up — officials in Hubei Province warned the WHO that cases of a mysterious pneumonia of unknown etiology were popping up in Wuhan. 

Soon the Chinese government was urging people to stay at home throughout the season, cancelling many public events and closing education facilities as well as factories. As a result, hotel occupancy dropped by 75% just from January 14 to January 16.

Normally people in China make around three billion trips during the 40 total days of the Spring Festival travel season. Last year’s number was cut in half — because of COVID.

So how will China bring in the New Year in 2021? Will its citizens be so eager to put the Year of the Rat behind them that they throw caution to the wind and cram their calendar with travel? Or will lingering worries over the virus keep them closer to home?  

Bringing in the Year of the Ox

It wasn’t until 1912 that China made the official switch to the Gregorian calendar, which much of the world has been using since the 16th Century.  

Still, to this day, most Chinese holidays are based on dates in the traditional Chinese calendar, known as yinyang li, or “heaven-earth” calendar. The first day of the Chinese New Year coincides with the new moon between January 21 and February 20. 

The day also represents the switch from one zodiac sign to the next — in this case, from the Rat to the Ox. The Ox is considered honest, humble, and hard-working.

But what feelings are predominant amongst the Chinese this year, after such a long and trying time?

According to the Streetbees COVID-19 Human Impact Tracker (HIT), feelings are running relatively high — relative, that is, to how people in most Western nations are feeling. 

China’s COVID fear index — the percent of people who are feeling afraid minus the percent of people who are not — is the lowest of all the nations in the study. 

This wasn’t always the case, of course. Early in 2020, before the virus had begun its devastating assault of Europe and the U.S., the fear index in China was sky-high, with almost 80% fearing the virus. This number steadily dropped, however, as China’s response to the virus proved itself to be largely effective.

Towards the end of the year, in fact, the fear index even dipped into negative territory, with more people reporting feeling unafraid than afraid. 

All of this should bode well for a 2021 New Year and Spring Festival filled with the crowded festivities and carefree travel of pre-COVID days.

But does it?

In their Own Words

Early last year, our bees (how we refer to Streetbees users) in China described in their own words how the presence of the coronavirus made them feel. 

Feelings ran the gamut from troubled — “This virus is cunning” (Male, 52) — to cautiously hopeful — “As long as we have good precautions, try to go out as little as possible, do not go to a crowded place, and wash our hands, we can try to avoid this virus” (Female, 48).

Some Chinese participants focused on what they could do to protect themselves: “I can reduce the exposure to the virus without going to a crowded place” (Male, 41). Others expressed a sense of dread and helplessness: “Disgusting. Because I can’t see it with my eyes, I’m a little scared. I do not know if I’m infected” (Female, 34). 

A 39-year-old female bee directly addressed the pandemic’s effect on her travel plans: “In the past, Chinese New Year was to visit relatives and visit friends, but this year is different. We can only replace the past with WeChat.”

Indeed, when asked the reasons for which they might leave home, bees scored “To see friends/family” next-to-lowest of all possible reasons, followed only by “To buy groceries for others.”

Looking towards a Brighter Year

Towards the end of the year, though, many bees’ feelings about the virus seemed to have lightened. “At first I was a little scared,” said one 58-year-old female bee, “but now I know that it can be defeated, so I am more confident.

A 73-year-old bee stated that he didn’t believe the impact of the virus on the Chinese people had been particularly big. “I think everyone’s lives have returned to normal.” 

Some had mostly stopped wearing masks. Some reported going out shopping with friends. Yet news of virus mutations still worried many, while others continued to be troubled by the virus’ rampages abroad. 

Very few expressed any appetite for travel — upcoming Spring Festival season, or not.

Just Stay Home — Please?

This lack of interest in traveling is not surprising, of course, considering the Chinese government’s efforts to discourage it.

The National Health Commission is requiring anyone who visits rural areas to pass a COVID screening, to check their temperature daily for 14 days while visiting, and to avoid public gatherings. 

Some administrators have decided to take a lighter touch, such as the city of Hangzhou, which is paying people to stay home during the holiday. Likewise, the city of Yiwu is working to ensure that as many businesses and cultural venues stay open as possible in order to tempt its residents into a stay-cation this year.

As for travel abroad, it’s allowed, but getting back home won’t be easy. All arrivals must quarantine for 14 days in a specified place, clear four COVID tests, and then complete a further seven days of quarantine at home. 

A Relative Success

So, even though the Chinese government’s willingness to impose harsh restrictions in combating the virus has kept infection numbers low, it doesn’t seem like there will be any “return to normal” during 2021’s New Year celebrations. 

Even if the government suddenly loosened restrictions, many Chinese people — 98% of whom claim to “know a lot” about the virus — would likely avoid visiting many friends and family or gathering in large groups. 

Perhaps more than government restrictions, it has been this ongoing alertness to the virus’ danger — and a willingness to sacrifice short-term personal happiness for a longer-term greater good — that has helped the Chinese avoid much of the devastation the virus has wreaked in other parts of the world.