New Spring Festival Travel Rules Target Coronavirus Outbreak, Hit Migrant Workers

During a January 20 press conference, China’s National Health Commission stated that all hoping to return to countryside homes for next month’s Spring Festival must first get tested for COVID. The following day, Xinhua News followed up on the surprise announcement, writing: “People must produce a negative result on a COVID-19 test taken within seven days before returning to rural areas […] then need to observe a 14-day home quarantine [… during which] they need to take a COVID-19 test every seven days.” The measures are aimed at stopping China’s current coronavirus outbreak, much of which is concentrated in rural areas. The announcement, made only weeks before the beginning of Spring Festival, threw travel plans into chaos and had many wondering about the science behind the drastic public health measure. Popular WeChat account @与归随笔 collected netizen’s questions about the vague new rule, capturing their weariness and wariness in the process:

Different places have sent out differing notices in the past. Is this a national, centralized policy?

I’m alone in the city and don’t have a stove to cook on. I’m worried I won’t have a place to eat on New Years, what should I do?

Can those living on municipal borders go home on New Years? Even though it’s technically two separate cities, it’s actually just the village over. Does this count as returning home? Do I need a nucleic acid test?

Does my first trip to my boyfriend’s hometown to meet his parents count as “returning home”?

So, who do I show this certificate to? Will it be checked when I get on the train? Or after I step off? Or should I log it with the neighborhood committee once I’m back home?

Realistically speaking, won’t all of these people congregating for nucleic acid tests create a risk of coronavirus clusters? Couldn’t it lead to cross-infections?

Isn’t this saying that the centralized national health QR codes are practically worthless? Does a “low risk area” designation carry any meaning?

There will be an estimated 1.7 billion trips taken during the 2021 Spring Festival, with an average of 40 million people traveling per day. A large portion of those people could be classified as returning home.. Aren’t the testing infrastructure needs too great, the costs too steep, and the pressure on medical departments too high?

I’m a medical practitioner, will I get a vacation this year?

Can you take the issues raised here as a sort of suggestion or proposal? Can you synthesize the people’s real difficulties and needs to create a more scientific and reasonable policy? [Chinese]

Chinese officials said that returnees must pay for nucleic acid tests out of their own pockets. Experts estimated that China will have to conduct 170 million tests to satisfy Spring Festival-related demand, news of which caused testing company stock prices to rise by 10% on Thursday, the maximum allowed on China’s domestic stock market. The windfall comes at the expense of migrant workers, many of whom can only afford to return home once per year, and who may now be priced out of the trip. Jane Cai at The South China Morning Post:

“I have three questions,” one user said in a popular post. “First, everyone has a health QR code as a proof of our health status. Why do we need a Covid-19 test result? Second, China categorises the country into three transmission risk zones: high, medium and low. Why should people from low-risk zones have a test? Last but not least, why does the policy only target people going to rural areas? Is it discrimination against migrant workers?”

Most of China’s 280 million rural migrant workers usually travel home to their villages at this time of year.

Zhou Wei, a migrant worker in Beijing, said he was dismayed learning about the measures and planned to cancel his trip home to Henan province.

“I had a tough year finding odd jobs in Beijing last year. A nucleic acid test costs around 100 yuan (US$15.50), which is not a small amount of money,” Zhou said. “Even if I return to my hometown, the 14-day health monitoring period will deprive me of all the joys of the festival. Our village party secretary is always strict. I bet he would not allow me to move as I please.” [Source]

National officials also mandated that rural localities institute “grid management,” a method with its roots in surveillance that breaks neighborhoods into cells, each under the watchful eye of grid managers who control all entry and exit into their cells. The system was instrumental in ending Wuhan’s outbreak in spring of 2020. At The Wall Street Journal Sha Hua reported on the difficulties Chinese authorities have had in adapting Wuhan’s pandemic control model to the countryside:

More of the current surge of cases have appeared in China’s countryside than in previous outbreaks, posing a challenge to the country’s big-city playbook. Public awareness of the disease is weaker in rural areas, and some farmers are reluctant to get tested, Feng Zijian, deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told state broadcaster Chinese Central Television this week.

Last week, more than 20,000 villagers from a high-risk district on the edge of Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei, were moved into quarantine accommodations—repurposed hotels and dormitories—to prevent transmission within households, Chinese officials said.

North of the city, meanwhile, authorities rushed to build last Wednesday a quarantine center with more than 3,000 rooms for isolating close contacts of coronavirus patients—a scene reminiscent of efforts during the early months of 2020, when two large field hospitals were built in a matter of days in Wuhan.

Temporary makeshift hospitals and quarantine centers , sometimes converted from hotels and dormitories, were instrumental in bringing the infection rate down in China by separating suspected and mild cases from the healthy population, thereby preventing further transmission. [Source]

Officials also mandated that weddings and funerals, often held during Spring Festival as it is the one time per year that widely dispersed families congregate, be cancelled. The outbreak is not entirely confined to rural areas. Reported cases in Beijing and Shanghai triggered school closings and limits on public transportation. The new outbreak comes during a vaccination campaign that aims to see 50 million people vaccinated before the Spring Festival.


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