Virtual fu & banquets for two! COVID shakes-up China's Spring Festival

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Lunar New Year may still be a week away, but that has not stopped preparations racketing-up in China as it enters one of the busiest times in the holiday season – Chunyun.

Also known as the holiday travel rush or Spring movement, Chunyun heralds the start the world's largest migration of people as millions of workers begin their long trips home. Airports and train stations are often besieged by millions of passengers clutching mountains of gifts such as oranges, nuts and local delicacies, as they return to their familial homes for China's oldest cultural festival.

And after a series of non-holidays during 2020 brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, including last year's Spring Festival, this year's celebration in China has taken on extra significance as a way of finally bidding adieu to the year of the Rat, and warmly welcoming the year of the strong and dependable Ox.

Don't travel if you don't have to

It seems however that the Rat-year is refusing to leave without one final, disruptive squeak. Over the past two-weeks, a rising number of domestic coronavirus cases across parts of China have dramatically put to bed any chance of a normal Spring Festival celebration for millions of families.

Triple-digit cases over the past 14-days have led authorities into advising people not to return home for the holiday season unless necessary. Those who do travel must now provide nucleic tests seven-days before leaving, and in the most extreme cases, people are required to quarantine at home for 14-days once they arrive.

Local authorities have also moved quickly to issue warnings for people to avoid crowded spots, public dining spaces and shopping malls, spelling bad news for restaurants, shops and cinemas who were banking on a bumper Spring Festival to help energise sluggish consumer spending.

For the millions of families who were looking forward to celebrating China's most famous reunion, it is a bitter blow. On Chinese social media platform Weibo, the hashtag #Responding to the Spring Festival Returning Home Epidemic Prevention Policy has been viewed over 11 million times, with netzines both sympathetic and frustrated at the measures, which some have viewed as a disproportionate overcorrection by the authorities.

Holiday travel disastrous for COVID fight

A quick glance West however at the current situation engulfing much of Europe, the UK and US, highlights the potential catastrophic pitfalls of allowing unrestricted holiday movement during a roaming pandemic, especially with new and more contagious variants of COVID-19 in circulation.

In the US, unobstructed Thanksgiving travel during November last year has been followed with a starling surge in confirmed COVID cases. According to the COVID Tracking Project, cases rose by 20 percent in the following two weeks after Thanksgiving, with public health authorities in the Texas capital of Austin, Massachusetts and California all recording huge spikes in infections. California in particular saw the most serious rise, with cases shooting up by 150 percent just two weeks after the holiday.

In the UK there has been a similar trend, with the country currently reeling from the disastrous effects of its Christmas Day travel frenzy, where families were given permission to form “Christmas Bubbles” of up to three households in England and Northern Ireland, staying overnight if necessary. This led to an explosion of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in the weeks following, and resulted in the British authorities initiating its 3rd national lockdown in less than two-months on January 4.

Over this period, hospitals have become overwhelmed, with deaths skyrocketing. As such, the UK now joins the ignominy of having witnessed 100,000 COVID-19 related deaths, with nearly half of those occurring in the last two months.

Compensation for people staying put

Having witnessed a small resurgence in China, and seen how quickly cases have risen after holiday travel elsewhere, it seems perfectly sensible – if disappointing – to ask people to stay put once more.

But unlike in other countries, which have struggled to convince people to stay at home when issuing travel restrictions, local authorities have put their hands in their pockets to compensate people for their sacrifice, especially areas with high migrant populations.

In Huzhou City, Zhejiang province, which neighbours the mega-metropolis of Shanghai, authorities have initiated plans to release $1.5 million (10 million yuan) in vouchers for people to use in the city, with an extra one-off payment of 1,000 yuan are being given to those in construction – usually migrant workers – to keep them on site. Other provinces and cities are also being creative with their remunerations, offering gift-packages, mobile phone credit and delivery allowances for those remaining at home.

Companies too are playing their part, offering flexible holiday time and financial incentives to compensate workers for staying put. JD Logistics, part of Chinese online shopping platform JD, have promised workers who remain in their city RMB 100 million yuan in subsidies, while Cainiao Logistics, part of Tmall Taobao, have promised similar compensation to workers worth more than 200 million yuan.

Businesses move services online

Businesses and cultural institutions have also refused to admit defeat in offering customers the Spring Festival they deserve, with a number of shops, restaurants and cultural events moving online to compensate for the lack of holiday footfall.

A number of popular Chinese restaurants have teamed up with domestic online food delivery platform Eleme to deliver special Spring Festival banquets – the corner stone of any Chinese celebration – ensuring those on their own or in small groups don't miss out on their holiday feast. A national Online Chinese New Year Shopping Festival has also been launched on Chinese online-shopping platforms such as Taobao, to ensure people don't venture out to buy their New Year staples such as nuts, oranges and decorated steamed buns (mantou).

Traditional Spring Festival activities, including folk arts, New Year parades and traditional fairs are set to be streamed by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism on a variety of online video platforms including Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok, while some temples such as the City God Temple in Shanghai are offering online ritual performances for worshipers to take part in.

Spring Couplets (Chunlian), which adorn the door of every household during Spring Festival, are also enjoying a digital upgrade, with online-payment platform Alipay offering its users the chance to write, design and send each other the red artworks through a mini program on their platform.

Red packets (hongbao), which are traditionally stuffed with cash, are also set to continue their move online, with Douyin having partnered with China's annual Spring Festival Gala to provide virtual packets to hundreds of millions of viewers. Red packets are the definitive Spring Festival gift, symbolising luck, life and happiness, and their availability online means even those celebrating alone will be able to revel in the festive favourite.

Though the thought of missing out on the warmth, smells and tastes of home is a tough pill for many in China to swallow, holiday travel when COVID-19 cases are rising is most risky. And given that many of the traditions and enjoyments of Chinese New Year have been transferred online, it means people will still be able to enjoy that special holiday feeling when Spring Festival finally comes around.

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