Harry Li is at a crossroads. Ideally, the law student wants to spend the Lunar New Year holiday in his home village in northern China’s Hebei province, but he is afraid of spending more than 12 hours on crowded trains and buses lest he brings COVID-19 to his elderly parents, who have not been vaccinated. “It’s been three years since I’ve been home [for Lunar New Year],” says Li, 20, who studies some 700 miles from home in Shanghai. “I was vaccinated nine months ago but everyone around me is still getting sick.”
Millions of Chinese are facing a similar dilemma this week. Before the pandemic, China’s Lunar New Year holiday was renowned as humanity’s largest annual migration, when hundreds of millions of working-age people travel from jobs typically on China’s freewheeling coast back to ancestral villages to feast and toast with elderly kin. Strict controls and state-led interventions were used to contain the pandemic. incentivization schemes—comprising cash, shopping vouchers, and movie tickets—put the brakes on holiday travel. But, on Dec. 9, China began completely dismantling its testing and quarantine apparatus, allowing the virus to spread like wildfire across the world’s largest population of 1.4 billion.